Better service for kids

October 14, 2003

ONE SIGN of positive change at the state's Department of Juvenile Services is made of solid concrete.

The Western Maryland Children's Center is the department's first brand-new building to start housing kids in three decades. It reflects the shift in philosophies toward what works best for children and away from what is most efficient for the state, a shift that had been much talked about in recent years but little seen.

The short-term detention center can house up to 24 youths awaiting juvenile court hearings or placement in residential programs. That's a far cry from the hundreds that are held at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School - or even the 144-bed capacity of the finally finished Baltimore City facility, which is expected to start housing kids next month.

With single-bed rooms that hold study tables and porcelain toilets and sinks, the dorm space in the new Hagerstown center is a stark contrast to that of the ill-conceived Cheltenham. Kids here don't have to pound on doors for a minder to come lead them to the restroom. The Hagerstown rooms are smaller, DJS says, to prevent the doubling up often seen in the other centers. Most of their windows look out onto woods.

The center also answers the call to keep kids closer to their communities. Intended to temporarily house juveniles from Frederick County and west, the building can't be just down the street from home, but it easily shaves hours off the previous commute, from the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Montgomery County. There's also an element of Scared Straight as the juveniles ride in and out of the new facility - down the road it's easy to see the state's giant adult prison compounds.

The new center, and one on the lower Eastern Shore that is set to open in two months, also offer evidence of a gradual but welcome warming in the political climate. Just three years passed from funding to opening of these facilities; getting the detention part of the Baltimore center going already has taken more than a decade.

The state has repeatedly promised many and extensive reforms in its handling of these troubled kids, so it's heartening to see some physical evidence of improvement. Juveniles, their families and their communities need such solid support.

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