Reforms working at juvenile facilities, state report says

Child advocates agree, but see overstatements

revision under way

September 21, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Maryland's long-troubled juvenile detention facilities are "cleaner, safer, more secure and more disciplined" as a result of two years of reforms, according to a progress report being drafted for legislators.

The report, prepared by the Department of Juvenile Justice and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's office, also says the state has made important strides in providing community-based supervision and after-care programs -- areas that were found to have been severely neglected in a 1999 investigation of problems at juvenile boot camps.

Leading advocates for children said some of the changes were real, but called the report an overstatement of the department's progress.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Maryland section Friday incorrectly identified Jim McComb as chair of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. McComb is the former chair. The current chair is Tara Andrews. The Sun regrets the error

The report, which is undergoing revision to eliminate at least one erroneous claim, outlines a series of measures that department Secretary Bishop L. Robinson has taken to alleviate overcrowding and poor conditions in state juvenile facilities since the Glendening administration admitted a management breakdown in the department two years ago. That admission was made after an investigation by The Sun that found widespread abuses in state boot camps -- revelations that led to the ouster of Robinson's predecessor.

The report spells out a series of steps the department intends to take over the next year to fundamentally change a system that child advocates have called cruel and ineffective.

Jim McComb, chairman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said the report shows Robinson has made some useful reforms and that "the things that they are planning to do hold the potential for improvement and change."

But McComb said other aspects of the report are "not really honest reporting."

He referred to the department's claims that it had reduced the number of children in detention, saying some juveniles had simply been sent to different facilities -- some with deplorable conditions -- in a kind of "shell game."

Child advocates said the state has made substantive reforms in some areas, but they criticized the lack of movement in other areas, including the disproportionate placement of minorities in detention. Black delinquents are twice as likely as white ones to get detention instead of treatment, The Sun's investigation found. The department's report calls for further study of the issue.

"We are very alarmed at the lack of substantial action in this area," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "They want to study it more and more. We don't think there's need to study it."

The draft at one point claims that last month, the state moved all the youths with Baltimore residences from the Cheltenham Youth Facility, an antiquated and decrepit structure in southern Prince George's County far from their families.

Laura Townsend, a spokesman for the Juvenile Justice Department, said about 50 Baltimore juveniles remain at Cheltenham out of a population of about 150 in secured detention. She said the department is now sending Baltimore youths to Cheltenham only as a last resort when the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County is full.

The report will be changed to reflect that fact, she said.

The state has reduced the number of beds in Cheltenham's secured detention facility from 225 to 144, the report says.

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