When smaller isn't safer

February 17, 2004

IT DOESN'T SEEM to matter that fewer juveniles are incarcerated at Cheltenham Youth Center; some still get beaten up. Until the outdated facility in southern Prince George's County can safely serve its purpose, caring for southern Maryland juveniles as they await a hearing or a placement in a treatment program, it should be shut down.

For a long time, the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) has tried to placate critics by arguing that a smaller Cheltenham would be safer: If it couldn't be closed quickly, at least it could house fewer wards. Recent facts don't support the theory.

Last week, the last of four former youth supervisors was charged with assault for allegedly beating a 17-year-old detainee on Nov. 30. The teen reportedly was kicked and punched in the head and chest after he refused to go to his room; he had bruises, cuts and a swollen jaw that finally got medical care the morning after the incident.

"The supervisors were doing what they thought was appropriate, but we would certainly disagree," a state police spokesman said. So would the rest of us, including their bosses at DJS, who fired all four within days of the alleged beating.

How did these youth supervisors get the idea that physical intimidation is a proper rehabilitation technique? Just what is taught in the four short weeks of training provided by DJS before juveniles are placed in supervisors' care? The department must review the way it hires, trains and supports its frontline staff.

It has relied too much on reducing the number of kids in the facility - as if that would relieve long-standing infrastructure and violence problems.

In November 2002, the average daily number of kids detained or awaiting placement was 246; last November, it was 162. DJS has closed two cottages; capacity at the four remaining is 96. Last month was the first the average population was under goal: 86.

Yet state police, who have a satellite office on Cheltenham's grounds, say they haven't yet seen a drop in incidents. Reports of youth-on-youth attacks, from shoving to serious assaults, continue to come in at 15 to 20 a month. And the most recent independent monitor's report, covering summer 2003, cites two instances of DJS staffers assaulting youths, and one of a youth who said he was sexually abused by other youths.

Contributing to the safety problem is the facility's outdated layout of jail-dorm floors that can't easily be monitored. But no one should use ill-conceived facilities as an excuse for tolerating violence against or among Cheltenham's wards, a mix of teens who have been found delinquent and others who haven't yet had their day in court.

They are not being helped to turn their lives around if they're being failed - or bullied - by the people who are supposed to protect them. If the state can't guarantee its wards' safety through reducing their numbers, and better staff training and support, it should shut Cheltenham down. Now.

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