Abuse of teens persists despite state's promises

Juveniles: At the state's three largest jails for delinquents, guards not only tolerate violence, but often ignite it.

November 25, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Shortly after several juvenile offenders met to discuss their drug and alcohol problems, a guard grabbed one teen and punched him squarely in the mouth, at least twice, maybe three times, sending him to the hospital.

Two weeks later, a guard watching another group of delinquent teen-agers approached one who was goofing off in the lunch line. When that altercation was over, the teen had a broken arm.

When a third youth who grappled with a guard one morning reached the emergency room, doctors found that a bone in his face had been broken.

Staff members at Maryland's three largest juvenile jails witnessed those confrontations, describing them in "critical incident reports" that were obtained by The Sun under state public information laws. They are among dozens of similar assaults, many witnessed by other staff members, reported last year.

The assaults occurred long after Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend shut down the state's boot camps for juvenile delinquents because guards were abusing those in their care. That was nearly two years ago, when the officials promised reform of the entire juvenile justice system.

"Violence," the governor and lieutenant governor said in a joint statement released Dec. 7, 1999, "will not be tolerated."

But Maryland's three largest juvenile facilities - home to hundreds of the state's male teen-age offenders, including violent gunmen, petty thieves and drug abusers - are rife with violence that not only is tolerated by guards but is often ignited by them.

The state's files are filled with allegations of guards regularly assaulting teens, using excessive force while restraining them or looking the other way when they assault each other. Over months of Saturday mornings, state police found, some teens were forced into a "fight club," where they settled problems with their fists while guards sat by as if watching dogs fight.

The roots of the violence have been known for years:

Guards at the facilities are poorly paid and receive little formal training. When confrontations between guards and juveniles occur, the incidents often escalate into violence.

Many of the teen-age offenders are waiting to be placed in outside programs that deal with their problems. The time they wait at the jails - sometimes weeks or months - does not count toward their sentences, adding to the frustrations.

About 25 percent of youths in the facilities suffer from severe mental illness but are left virtually untreated even as they mutilate themselves with razor blades and tie bedsheets around their necks in suicide attempts. Their mental health problems not addressed, they often attack each other or are injured by exasperated guards.

When approached by The Sun with accounts of conditions in the facilities, juvenile justice officials, who had initially refused to release the reports, acknowledged the violence, as did Townsend.

"I'm disheartened and sickened by it," Townsend said in a recent interview. "It's something that in no way is acceptable."

The Department of Juvenile Justice is making changes, she said, to decrease jail populations and to improve mental health services, which should reduce violence in the facilities.

"We are not where we need to be," Townsend said. "But we know where we want to go, and we're going to get there."

Last week, the lieutenant governor announced that if conditions at one of the facilities - the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County - did not improve, she would consider closing it.

The Sun has reviewed hundreds of documents from the jails - Victor Cullen, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

Of the reports examined by The Sun, 93 were accounts of staff members assaulting teens in their care and 109 were cases of youths assaulting their peers.

The reports of assaults are not conclusions but allegations, some of which juvenile justice officials say are unfounded. The department would not provide the outcome of specific cases because, officials said, that information was protected in "investigatory files."

Likewise, officials with the Maryland State Police, which investigates accusations of assaults at the facilities, said they could not provide information on the cases because they involved juveniles.

But there are strong indications that many of the reports are true. One confidential memo from a department investigator concluded that numerous cases of abuse at Victor Cullen were hidden from top state officials.

Last year, at least four guards from Victor Cullen were charged with assaulting juveniles and two others were charged with sexually abusing youths at the center, and at least six guards have been fired this year after allegations of physical assaults. Juvenile justice officials said they did not have information on any criminal charges against guards at Hickey and Cheltenham.

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