Four workers at juvenile site are charged

They are accused of beating 17-year-old at Cheltenham facility

Suspects were all fired

Allegations come at time when system is struggling with inadequate staffing

February 13, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Four staff members at the state's Cheltenham juvenile detention center have been charged with assaulting a 17-year-old youth who says he was held down and repeatedly kicked and punched in the chest and face, police said yesterday.

The incident occurred at the troubled 132-year-old facility in Prince George's County on Nov. 30, but was not made public until now.

The beating occurred when the boy refused to go to his room after dinner, according to charging documents filed by state police. Five youths told authorities they saw two workers hold the youth by his arms and feet, while two others assaulted him. The victim - who suffered bruises, cuts and a swollen jaw - was naked from the waist down, several of the witnesses said.

The workers were placed on administrative leave and later fired, according to the state Department of Juvenile Services. Charges were filed Jan. 28. Two of the charged former workers are free on bond, and two were released on their own recognizance.

The allegations come as the state has been struggling to adequately staff its eight juvenile detention centers, where staffing levels often fall short of federal targets and workers are less qualified than required by some states. Juveniles charged with offenses such as drug dealing and robbery are sent to the centers to await court dates or placement in treatment programs.

The workers, called youth supervisors, are paid significantly less than their counterparts in surrounding states. Maryland's starting salary for the workers, who must have a high school degree or its equivalent, is $23,722.

Other juvenile centers have also had problems with youth workers. At the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, an "overworked staff and a poor quality of staff" contributes to a "steady stream of assault/use of force incidents," according to the independent state monitor's office.

News of the charges at Cheltenham highlights the need for juvenile justice reform, lawmakers said.

"We need well-trained, well-qualified workers. We need reform and we can't wait," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee. "It's the awful cases that get reported in the media, but the larger issue is that we have a system that has been in demise for decades."

Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of the advocacy group JJ Fair, said the charges underscore the need for management changes in the Juvenile Services agency. "Until the heads roll at the highest echelons where people have responsibility, these episodic incidents will just continue," she said.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. declined to comment, referring inquiries to a spokeswoman.

"As you know, we do not comment on personnel matters," spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards said. "However, in this case we took the appropriate steps that were needed. Once the incident occurred, the individuals were handled appropriately."

Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn Ivey said his office would investigate the incident. "I would think the grand jury piece would be able to get under way pretty soon," he said.

The state has been gradually reducing the population at Cheltenham, which opened in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys. It sometimes held more than 200 youths last year and was troubled by youth assaults and disturbances. The population has been reduced recently to about 100, in part because of the October 2003 opening of a Baltimore juvenile center, offering more holding space.

But child advocates say Cheltenham is still not safe.

"Just when everybody thinks we're heading in the right direction for Cheltenham, something like this occurs," said state Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat from Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.

The incident allegedly occurred at Rennie Cottage, where the population tends to be older (generally ages 15 to 18) and rougher than the other dormitories at Cheltenham.

The victim told police he was pulled into a back hallway and placed in a "chicken wing hold," according to police records, which said his sweat shirt and sweat pants were ripped and blood-stained. Police said they were notified the next morning.

Charged with assault are Rahim Muhammad, 42, of Brandywine; Bryan Jackson, 21, of Baltimore; Darnell Garrison, 39, of Fort Washington; and Barren Tillman, 39, of Waldorf.

Three of the workers acknowledged to authorities that the youth was restrained, but said they did not assault him, charging documents say.

As part of the investigation, police said they discovered Garrison had an outstanding arrest warrant in Prince George's County for failure to appear on a misdemeanor driving violation.

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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