U.S. Justice Dept. to probe civil rights at youth facility

Investigative team to visit Cheltenham next week

Site of juvenile abuse complaints

April 26, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Justice Department is sending an investigative team to the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County next week as part of a civil rights probe into conditions at Maryland's juvenile justice facilities.

Cheltenham employees said the visit, beginning Monday, would be the department's first to the troubled facility. The federal investigators are looking into medical, educational and mental health services.

The state Department of Juvenile Services said it has been notified of the visit and is cooperating.

Cheltenham has been called "a nightmare" by juvenile justice watchdog groups that have complained about overcrowding and abuse, and neglect of residents. Last month, a 14-year-old boy suffered a head injury at the center during a fight involving about 44 youths that was broken up by police.

The state-owned center houses about 220 youths from Baltimore and other parts of the state who are awaiting trial or removal to another facility.

The Justice Department, which began its investigation last year, plans to send to Cheltenham an investigator, two attorneys, a sanitation expert and an expert in youth center operations, according to several Cheltenham employees who were briefed about the visit.

The employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were apprised of the visit -- expected to take most of the week -- in a recent conference call with members of the state attorney general's office. The Cheltenham staff members said they were told to expect a second Justice Department visit next month focusing on health and education services.

The investigation is being handled by attorneys in a special section of the department's Civil Rights Division. The Special Litigation Section investigates facilities, including juvenile centers and jails, to determine whether there is a pattern of violations of residents' civil rights.

In the past, such investigations have often ended with the litigation section entering into consent decrees in which states agree to correct deficiencies.

Daniel Weiss, a section attorney involved in the Maryland probe, referred calls to public affairs officials, who declined comment.

The investigators are also looking into conditions at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, the state has been told.

The federal investigation began last fall after Del. Charles R. Boutin, a Harford County Republican, and other GOP legislators contended in a letter to the Justice Department that Maryland's juvenile justice system had not improved since a 1999 boot camp scandal.

That year, The Sun detailed how juvenile offenders were routinely pummeled by their caretakers and abused in other ways.

Boutin rejected any suggestion that with his letter he was seeking to influence the gubernatorial race that was going on at the time.

Word of the investigators' Cheltenham visit was welcomed yesterday by Vincent Schiraldi, a steering committee member of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, a watchdog group.

"It's an extra motivation out there to keep people from forgetting about this place. It's easy to forget about these kids," Schiraldi said.

The state has been gradually reducing Cheltenham's population, a process that should become easier when a $45 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center opens to youths in October.

The General Assembly has called for Cheltenham's living areas to be demolished and then rebuilt over the next five years. Schiraldi said he has told Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the state's new Juvenile Services secretary, that he hopes the new Cheltenham will look less like a jail than "small, home-like facilities."

Montague was unavailable for comment yesterday, said Juvenile Services spokesman Lee Towers.

Problems at Cheltenham won't be solved overnight, said Ralph Thomas of the Office of Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, part of the governor's office.

"This is a longstanding problem, and I do believe Secretary Montague is trying to change things," Thomas said. "But he's been in office a few months and there's a long way to go."

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