Boot camp Band-Aid

November 26, 2003

AMERE 82 of the 890 young men who were part of a class-action settlement against the state's Department of Juvenile Services are attending classes on the state's dime right now. And that's the good news.

The more than $4 million they were awarded for surviving the bruises, broken bones and harassment of Maryland's boot camps for chronic juvenile offenders surely would have served them better if it had been spent on counseling, schooling and follow-up care when they were teens.

And four years since The Sun graphically described violence by guards in one of the three Western Maryland boot camps and a near-complete lack of support once juveniles returned home, kids in state care continue to get hurt and continue to be neglected after their release from detention.

More than 20 cases of suspected child abuse and neglect were reported in the first half of this year just at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County. A year-old federal investigation is continuing into conditions at Hickey and the Cheltenham Youth Facility, where in September a youth staying in the detention wing suffered a broken jaw.

The department also has made little obvious progress on its pledge to increase community-based aftercare, including supervision and counseling. It has struggled to retain skilled staffers, who leave for states with higher pay scales.

Will it take another class-action lawsuit to turn promises into action? Even that may not work: The last lawsuit changed things only for those already out of the system -- the boot campers.

Altogether, 245 have declared an education plan; they have until next August to begin taking classes. Another 103 signed an intent letter but haven't completed the paperwork. They are on campuses including the Community College of Baltimore City, Lincoln Technical Institute, Montgomery College and the College of Southern Maryland.

This was a group of tough kids, now most of them tough adults. School wasn't tops among their priorities, usually back behind surviving absentee or criminal parents, empty or missing homes, and tough streets. All of the 14 young men profiled in The Sun's series had been arrested again within two years of their release.

That even a portion of these young men has grabbed this chance at schooling is a testament to their own dogged efforts to better their lives. They certainly didn't learn that from the state.

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