A measure of respect

December 15, 2003

HOW MUCH difference can one building make? A world's worth, if it's the new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. The block-long building's soaring glass atrium, wide halls and well-appointed offices and courtrooms display great regard for those who must do business here, and its workers are receiving a similar dose in return.

Sheriffs guarding the center's public entrance say they have never seen people treat one another so kindly before. Judges, lawyers, social workers and families pass one another in the halls with genial greetings.

For the kids and families who pass from the police-run intake corner into the social services corridor, and for those who come in for child welfare hearings in another corridor, the center offers immediate caseworker attention, medical and mental screening and advice, and soon, peer group support and mentoring. They don't get handed just another piece of paper and sent home, or shuttled to another center across town.

For the 10 percent of arrested kids who must be detained overnight, the beds are here. And though they still must be shackled when they attend court hearings, at least the trip is down the hall and up in an elevator, not a long ride from Prince George's County.

Casual staff encounters in the halls build unexpected links, making the safety net stronger. The formal links -- interdepartmental weekly meetings -- help agencies react quickly to the statistics they are collecting.

When Department of Juvenile Services and Circuit Court staffers saw the center's first few detention population reports -- showing some kids as young as 10 and 11 staying overnight -- they stepped up efforts to ensure that the youngest are diverted into shelter care or one of the pilot detention alternative programs. In just a few weeks, they have shown success: Detained kids have ranged in age from 14 to 18, the target group.

The center is no Eden. Ideally, families would never have to enter these halls. And the agencies themselves are trying to recover from deeply dysfunctional pasts. But the center's mission -- rehabilitating juveniles and mending families -- will always be a necessity. Here, in bright spaces and respectful tones, it looks like the city and state consider it a priority, too. Now the money for services must be found to match that physical sign.

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