Md. says teen jail incidents far higher

Juvenile justice chief misstated number of assaults to legislators

January 15, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

The secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice understated the number of reported assaults by guards against teens when he testified recently before state legislators, a top agency official acknowledged yesterday.

Bishop L. Robinson insisted in testimony Dec. 4 that his office had received 84 reports of guards physically assaulting teens in 2000 at the state's three largest juvenile jails. Yesterday, the department said investigators received 114 reports of guards assaulting teens in the first 11 months of the year.

Twenty-four of the allegations were confirmed, juvenile justice officials said.

The department also released data showing that one of the jails sent 89 teens to Frederick Memorial Hospital during the year. In his testimony, Robinson presented legislators with data that indicated only five teens were sent to the hospital.

The new information was obtained by The Sun under state public records law. Assistant Secretary Henry R. Lesansky said Robinson did not intentionally mislead legislators about the number of assaults. Department investigators were trying to resolve the discrepancy, he said.

"We do regret that an error was, in fact, made," Lesansky said. "We apologize for that."

The number of teens that Robinson testified were treated at Frederick Memorial was based on incorrect hospital data, Lesansky said. Robinson declined to be interviewed for this article.

Robinson's testimony came before the House Education and Economic Development subcommittee. He was answering questions about a Nov. 25 article in The Sun that reported that teens at the state's largest jails for juvenile offenders were being assaulted by guards.

In a vigorous defense of the department he took over in December 1999, Robinson testified that the newspaper reports were exaggerated. He told the subcommittee that "point by point, The Sun misled its readers," and he focused on the statistics the article used in describing violence at the jails.

In addition to his remarks to the subcommittee, Robinson posted a notice on his agency's Web site and sent letters to parents of teens in the system to assure them that The Sun's statistics overstated problems at the jails.

In its reversal, the department acknowledged that the newspaper did not overstate the violence but had actually understated the number of assault allegations, most likely because requested documents were not forwarded.

The department's correction was welcomed by advocates for children, who have long argued that large institutions such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, Victor Cullen Center and Cheltenham Youth Facility breed violence and should be closed.

"I'm glad they're admitting the numbers reportedly previously were incorrect, but I can't say I'm surprised that the numbers are really so high," said Tara Andrews, chairwoman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "There's no way to keep kids safe in institutions that large."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend announced last month that Cullen would be reduced from about 185 beds to 48 this summer. Robinson said previously that Cheltenham would be similarly cut in size. No such plans have been announced for Hickey, which holds 235 teens.

The Sun's article describing violence at the jails was based on public records and interviews with teens and juvenile justice employees. The article reported that about 25 percent of the teens in the jails suffer from serious mental illness and that guards are ill-equipped to handle them.

While correcting Robinson's testimony, the department released new data showing that the number of reports of excessive force and other forms of child abuse at the three jails declined in the first 11 months of last year compared with the same period in 2000. The number decreased from 114 incidents to 72.

Hickey, for example, showed 16 cases of excessive force or other abuse in 2001. There were 40 cases reported the previous year.

Those numbers, however, include only cases reported by jail employees while excluding assaults discovered by department investigators. Lesansky said that information was not available.

Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said confusion about the number of assaults drives home the need for a committee of citizens to monitor the jails. The decreased number of assaults as announced by the department yesterday are "unbelievable - literally," she said.

"Look, we have no idea whether the numbers are accurate or not accurate," she said. "You'll have peaks and valleys with these numbers, but you're always going to have abuse until you stop paying for and operating large institutions."

Department spokesman Lee Towers said the numbers indicate that reform efforts are being taken seriously. "I think there's a renewed effort on the part of staff," he said. "We have emphasized training and the secretary's directives, and it seems to be working."

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