Hickey School violence goes on

State monitor sees no improvement in conditions

Earlier report detailed abuse

Juvenile detention facility is run by Florida company

December 14, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

The Charles H. Hickey Jr. School continues to be beset by violence, some of it perpetrated by staff, and conditions have not improved since a scathing report in May detailed 20 cases of child abuse and neglect at the juvenile detention facility, according to the state independent monitor.

With the number of assaults and other violent incidents showing no signs of abating, the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor recommended in September that the state consider firing the private contractor that operates Hickey, according to documents obtained by The Sun under a public records request.

The monitor has backed off from that recommendation - not because conditions have improved but because the vendor's five-year contract will expire in March.

The Hickey School, which serves about 260 troubled boys, is run by Youth Services International, a private contractor based in Sarasota, Fla. In the past year, the monitor's office has chronicled instances of staff abuse, repeated youth-on-youth assaults, and staff bringing alcohol and pornography into the facility in Baltimore County.

The state began accepting bids several weeks ago for a new three-year pact. Bidding closes Jan. 23, and more than three dozen companies - including Youth Services - have expressed interest, said Juvenile Services spokeswoman LaWanda G. Edwards.

The state explored ending the contract ahead of schedule, "but looking at the length of time we had left, it really didn't make sense to pull it," Edwards said.

The best course might be to continue the bidding as planned, Ralph B. Thomas, executive director of the monitor's office, said last week.

But, based on continuing visits to Hickey, Thomas emphasized that his office is no less concerned about conditions there. "I can't say there's been any significant improvement," he said.

Donald Barrett, Hickey's acting facility administrator, declined to comment on conditions there or whether Youth Services would bid again on the contract. He referred inquiries to corporate headquarters, where officials were not immediately available for comment.

The monitor's May report said documented cases of youth-on-youth assaults and other violent incidents occur at the school 2.5 times a day on average. The figure has not come down since then, according to the monitor's office and the Juvenile Services agency.

"The number of assaults or incidents may even have increased, simply because we've made the reporting more accurate," Edwards said. "They are now reporting every single incident at Hickey. That could even be a kid pushing another kid."

But serious incidents continue to occur. According to the monitor's reports, these include:

A July escape attempt in which a youth was seriously injured when he became entangled in perimeter fencing razor wire. The boy was able to break out of his detention unit because of a defective lock, and Hickey staff did not respond to repeated alarms, the monitor's office said. The attempt was discovered after the bleeding boy scrambled back to his unit and tried to hide his injuries.

A late-June incident in which a staff member was accused of assaulting a youth and "subsequently assaulted the state police investigator during questioning," the September report said.

An attempted suicide in June in which a youth tied his bedsheet around an exposed sprinkler head in the seclusion area. Staff saw the boy and intervened. According to the monitor, the sprinkler heads had remained exposed even though another boy had tried to hang himself on one seven weeks earlier.

Opened in 1850 as the House of Refuge, Hickey houses some of the state's most serious juvenile offenders. Some youths are in detention awaiting court dates, while others have been committed there by judges. It is among eight state detention facilities for juveniles.

Some legislators said the state must again assume control of Hickey if it is to ensure proper management. The school has been privately run since September 1991 - first by a Colorado company called Rebound Inc., then by Youth Services International.

"My plan would be to have a public system where no one under [Juvenile Services] is under the care of a private contractor," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee overseeing juveniles. "There is a monetary incentive to cut corners because a private contractor is a business, and there's a bottom line," he said.

Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, toured Hickey with fellow subcommittee members last week, calling it "awful."

"You can just tell the culture is to treat the kids like prisoners," he said.

But Zirkin said it might not be feasible for the state to take over Hickey until after the new vendor's contract expires in 2007.

On the Senate side, Judicial Proceedings Chairman Brian E. Frosh agreed that contracting out might be the wrong approach. "This is not a commodity," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "This is human services, and I really think the conditions at Hickey and the Cheltenham Youth Facility [in Prince George's County] are unacceptable."

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