Six juveniles charged in sexual assault

Boy, 13, molested at Cheltenham facility

July 26, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Six delinquents locked in a juvenile detention center in Prince George's County have been charged in connection with two sexual assaults against a 13-year-old boy there, officials said yesterday.

The Cheltenham Youth Center was both understaffed and overcrowded at the time of the assaults, raising the ire of child advocates who have long warned that the facility is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But the secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, Bishop L. Robinson, said yesterday that increased staffing probably would not have prevented the assault. "These acts are due to staff's inability and failure to uphold their sworn responsibility to protect the youth," he said.

Saturday, just after midnight, the victim informed a youth counselor that he had been sexually assaulted twice, according to Bob Kannenberg, spokesman for the juvenile justice agency.

The teen-ager said he was assaulted July 19 by one youth in the room they shared at Cheltenham. He said he was sexually assaulted by five other teens, age 14 to 17, about 10 p.m. Friday.

State police were notified and are investigating, as is the juvenile justice agency's inspector general, Kannenberg said.

The six youths accused in the attacks have been charged with second-degree assault. Investigators will determine whether additional counts of aggravated sexual assault will be filed.

Staffing levels at Cheltenham, which is designed to hold a maximum of 271 delinquents, are supposed to include 122 counselors who have direct responsibility for the teens, according to department guidelines.

On the day of the assaults, there were 17 counselor vacancies, according to Kannenberg. The problem was compounded because the facility was over capacity, with about 290 youths held there last week.

Jann Jackson, executive director of Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth, said new standards to avoid unsafe staffing ratios - standards developed by advocacy groups and the department - have not been adopted.

"We recommended detention standards over a year ago," she said. "If detention centers had been embraced by this administration, we may have seen the staffing needed to prevent this kind of tragedy."

Secretary Robinson said the agency is making progress in reducing the number of juveniles at its facilities. But he said Cheltenham has been hindered by a high turnover rate, an inability to hire replacements and an excessive number of discipline problems.

He said he has sent an assistant secretary from department headquarters in Baltimore, Rudy Adams, to serve as Cheltenham's acting superintendent while the investigations are under way.

James Lewis, who was acting superintendent at the time of the assaults, was returned to his previous job of assistant superintendent.

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