Past time for change at Hickey

December 29, 2003

THE ILLS that beset the privately run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for troubled boys are deep and long-standing. Despite continued close monitoring by the state Department of Juvenile Services, including adding more child advocates on the campus, the rate of youth-on-youth attacks and other violent incidents has not dropped from an average of 2.5 each day reported back in the spring.

Yet the state agency responsible for the boys' well-being has stretched by another three months its contract with the private firm that runs the facility.

Hickey's current operator, Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International, has had trouble fulfilling its contract, the largest funded by DJS - budgeted at $15 million in fiscal 2004.

The problems include failures to provide enough training, staff and youth education programs. The company hired workers who allegedly beat kids, and one who allegedly assaulted a police investigator during questioning on the matter. A scathing independent monitor's report, made public in June, detailed an appalling level of violence at Hickey.

To better ensure the children's safety, DJS officials should have taken over for at least a few months while it plans Hickey's anticipated overhaul, slated to begin with a new contract in July. Instead, the agency offered two fiscal arguments against dumping the operator:

Its contract will expire in March, leaving too little time for DJS to pull together the staff and resources to run the facility itself - DJS would need at least six months to take over.

There's also a federal funding obstacle: A private firm can recoup some medical costs by applying to Medicaid for each child in its care, while the state is expected to pay its own way for care. Perhaps a short-term solution would have been to contract out just those services, as has been done at the Cheltenham Youth Facility, which DJS operates.

In the long term, though, the basic shape of Hickey must change, as has been promised through two administrations. Most juvenile offenders are best served in small, community-based facilities that offer a range of services - not giant run-down campuses for 200 boys.

DJS got that concept right in its request for contractors' proposals to run the center: It envisions smaller, programmed units as if the campus were seven separate facilities. Vendors have until mid-January to propose therapeutic and shelter-care pods, which should put more medical and mental care staffers where they are needed.

Smaller units likely will be more expensive to run than the current service, and it remains to be seen whether any of the 40 prospective vendors can deliver on the new model.

Speeding the transition should hasten the day when troubled boys get reform, not abuse, at Hickey.

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