Center is ready to admit youths

Detention facility opens in city after two years of construction delays

No juveniles placed in building yet

Site should ease crowding at other area facilities

October 31, 2003|By Jeff Barker and Laurie Willis | Jeff Barker and Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The state opened a new juvenile detention center in Baltimore yesterday that child advocates hope will relieve crowding at other holding facilities where city youths have long been sent.

The $45 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street at Fallsway will house a maximum of 144 youths awaiting court dates. Construction delays pushed back the opening, originally scheduled for 2001.

The new building means Baltimore juveniles won't regularly have to be sent to facilities outside the area, where they are far from their families and lawyers.

Because of a lack of space in the city, many Baltimore juveniles have been transported in recent years to the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in the Cub Hill area of Baltimore County.

According to state records, Hickey has been near its capacity of 280 youths lately, while Cheltenham has regularly exceeded - sometimes by several dozen - its maximum of 160 youths.

The new 244,000-square-foot facility includes three 48-bed dormitories for youths 12 to 18, the Baltimore juvenile court, the juvenile division of the state's attorney's and public defender's offices, and related offices.

Some building administrators moved in months ago, but yesterday was the first day that youths were to be accepted. By 4:30 p.m., none had arrived.

The brick facility, with shiny floors and plenty of lighting, has six classrooms and a computer lab. It also houses a library that has about 100 donated books on its shelves.

Youngsters will be taught reading, social studies, science, math and health, said Marjorie Miles, principal of the center's Academy for Educational Excellence.

Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, the center's managing director, said the average length of stay for juveniles in detention statewide is 25 days. But many youths have stayed far longer - in part, the state says, because of the difficulty in placing them in rehabilitation or treatment programs.

Welcome alternative

Youth advocates said the new center provides a needed alternative to Cheltenham and Hickey. The Sun reported in June that Cheltenham was crowded, understaffed and beset by youth violence. More than half of its population of about 200 youths are from the Baltimore area.

"If they don't overcrowd it, it will be better than Cheltenham," James McComb, a member of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said of the new center. "Kids won't have to get up at 5 in the morning to get on a van and go up to Baltimore" to attend court, he said.

But McComb and other advocates expressed frustration that the Department of Juvenile Services wasn't immediately transferring residents from Cheltenham to the new building. The coalition has long called for the closure of Cheltenham, which it recently labeled "dangerous and decrepit."

The state's 2004 budget requires several Cheltenham dormitories to be closed when the Baltimore center and two other youth centers become "fully operational." The other two are the Lower Eastern Shore Children's Center, which is due to open next month, and the Western Maryland Children's Center, which opened in September.

Resident transfers

Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Lee Towers said the state would comply with the directive. He said the agency has already closed some Cheltenham dormitories.

In the meantime, Towers said, it made little sense to "disrupt" Cheltenham residents' lives by moving them to Baltimore.

Better, he said, to allow the youths to naturally cycle out of Cheltenham when their court cases are resolved or they are sent to outside treatment centers.

Kenneth C. Montague Jr., the secretary of Juvenile Services, has said he hopes to eventually oversee the downsizing of Cheltenham to fewer than 50 residents.

Cheltenham, which opened in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys, is intended for youths from Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and Prince George's counties.

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