CHELTENHAM -- The Department of Juvenile Services said yesterday that it has stopped placing youths age 12 and younger at the state's detention center here after advocates expressed concern about the youngsters' well-being when placed with older -- and often tougher -- boys.
Most of the younger boys are being sent instead to the Maryland Youth Residence Center, a Baltimore shelter care facility for juveniles who need supervision but are not considered dangerous. They receive education and counseling while they await a court hearing or placement to a treatment facility.
The Sun reported in June that the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County violated department standards last year by assigning a roommate to a 10-year-old sex offender who should have been housed alone. The offender and his 11-year-old roommate were later found "engaging in a sexual act while locked in their bedroom" on Thanksgiving Day, said a report by a state juvenile justice monitor. Some advocates and legislators said they had not previously known that children that young were being assigned to Cheltenham.
Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague said in an interview yesterday that he has problems "with the whole idea of having a 12-year-old incarcerated in a detention facility. These kids are still learning about themselves."
Some state legislators who toured Cheltenham yesterday said they worried that preteens might be prey for older boys in the population, which typically includes some 17-year-olds.
In recent months, the mix of Cheltenham's roughly 200 residents has included youths charged with attempted murder, armed robbery and assault as well as 12-year-olds sent there for parole violations.
"Sometimes, older children have a tendency to pick on younger children," said Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "I don't think anyone under 12 should be sent here unless they're in the shelter outside the fence."
The shelter, essentially a group home, is used for youths who have finished their detention at Cheltenham but have nowhere else to go.
The process of getting the youngest boys out of Cheltenham began in late June when the department closed the McGuire unit, one of the facility's "cottages." Known as the "Muppet Baby Unit," McGuire had been home to Cheltenham's youngest residents.
Six of the 11 boys housed at McGuire were sent to the Baltimore youth residence, and the rest to other housing at Cheltenham.
"This doesn't mean we're not going to still have the occasional [preteen] kid at Cheltenham that can't be managed somewhere else," said Vickie Colter, a department deputy secretary. "But, for the most part, we're going to try to not have little kids here."
Some youths age 12 or younger still might be housed at Cheltenham because their behavioral problems would require its relatively high level of supervision and security. The department said one such youth is at the facility, assigned to a special wing at one of the cottages.
The detention center, one of five in Maryland for juveniles, is intended for youths from Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and Southern Maryland.
Because of a lack of space elsewhere, scores of Baltimore youngsters are here, too -- more than half of the population. A new Baltimore juvenile facility is scheduled to begin accepting youths in October, allowing Cheltenham's population to be reduced.
"The biggest problem is overcrowding," said Del. James E. Proctor Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat whose district includes Cheltenham. "Once the Baltimore City kids are in Baltimore, things here are going to change."