Officials seeking answers on girl, 13

Teen-ager was wanted on detention order, but was placed in foster home

Suspect ran away within hours

May 22, 2002|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County court officials are looking into why a 13-year-old runaway wanted for failing to appear before a juvenile master in April was placed in a foster home - from which she bolted - instead of a secure facility after a new arrest on burglary charges this month.

But a juvenile justice official who handles intake for Prince George's County, where the new charges were filed, told Howard Juvenile Master Bernard A. Raum yesterday that while he wanted to lock up the girl, neither the burglary charge nor her longtime runaway status was enough to warrant detention under relatively new rules in his county.

Joseph Strong, who is contracted to do emergency intake work for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, also said that his access to a computer system that would have alerted him to Raum's writ requiring officials to hold the girl had been blocked for months.

"I know it sounds awful," Strong acknowledged yesterday during a hearing on the issue, saying that his job was once threatened when he locked up a juvenile whose offenses - including gun possession - were not on a detainable charges list.

Strong was one of four witnesses called to testify yesterday during an administrative hearing set by Howard officials who said they are trying to figure out whether the system failed the girl, who had been on the run for more than three months before her burglary arrest May 7.

"We're all in this for the best interest of the child," said Catherine Hester, chief of the juvenile division for the Howard County state's attorney's office. "We're not here to point fingers. We're interested in seeing what happened here."

What happens next is unclear.

Howard prosecutors said they are interviewing officials involved with the girl's case, and depending on what they find, might hold another hearing to take more testimony.

The girl was initially arrested in January on charges that she stole a car in Columbia, but she ran away after she was placed in a Howard County group home, according to court officials and testimony yesterday.

The Sun is not naming the girl because she is a juvenile.

When the teen-ager failed to appear for a court hearing last month on the January charges, Raum issued a writ for her detention.

On May 7, the 13-year-old was caught breaking into a house in Laurel, said Officer C.J. Gray of Laurel City Police.

Her arrest sparked a series of calls - to Prince George's County juvenile justice officials, to Howard County police and to Howard social services workers, according to testimony.

But even though Laurel police pushed Strong to place the girl in a secure facility that night, the juvenile justice worker said he could not.

"We operate under a different set of guidelines in Prince George's County," he testified after court officials noted a state directive that would have allowed for her placement in a secure facility as a result of the burglary charge.

The rules for detention changed in Prince George's County last year, Strong said, and the number of children locked up has dropped from 35 or 40 a month to four or five.

"She needed help," he told Raum. "She should have been detained."

The girl was taken to a foster home in Howard County in the early morning of May 8 but she ran away within a few hours.

Howard police picked her up later that day.

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