New violence at youth jails causes alarm

News of incident in city follows one at Cheltenham

February 18, 2004|By Jeff Barker and Stephanie Desmon | Jeff Barker and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

A 16-year-old boy in state custody at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center was severely beaten last month by five other youths who continued to kick him in the head and face after he fell to the ground "defenseless," according to state police records.

It was the second incident in a week to come to light in which a youth was assaulted in a state juvenile detention center. Police said last week that four staff members at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County were charged with holding down a 17-year-old and striking him repeatedly on Nov. 30.

The Cheltenham incident was not disclosed by the state Department of Juvenile Services until 2 1/2 months later, after a state police barracks issued its own news release. The department did not disclose information until yesterday about the Jan. 29 Baltimore attack, in which five youths were charged as adults with attempted murder.

The Baltimore victim was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center with severe head and torso injuries and a broken leg, according to police charging documents. He has since been returned to the detention center, Juvenile Services officials said. The center's shift commander and another staff member suffered minor injuries attempting to break up the attack.

"Our staff jumped on the boys as soon as it happened," said department spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards. "We feel very good about the way it was handled."

Edwards said the department, which has been criticized over persistent detention center violence, doesn't routinely alert the public to such incidents. Department officials acknowledge that they have asked state police not to release information about their investigations of such violence without consulting them first.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. declined to comment on the latest incident or answer questions about steps being taken to prevent others, referring inquiries to Edwards.

The new report of violence troubled child advocates, who said state leaders don't seem publicly accountable.

"The department has not responded to what I personally think are reasonable queries about how did this happen and how are you going to stop it from happening again," said Jim McComb, director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.

"The No. 1 priority was keeping the kids safe. It hasn't happened," McComb said. "There is a degree of ineptitude that's just inexcusable."

The commander of the Forestville state police barracks, which investigated the Cheltenham assault, seemed to view the incident differently than Juvenile Services officials. "They consider it a personnel issue and [said] they won't comment. ... We consider it a crime," Lt. Brian Cedar said yesterday.

The latest incident occurred at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street at Fallsway, which began housing youths Oct. 30. It is designed to hold up to 144 juveniles awaiting court dates.

According to police records, a center staff member was escorting the victim to his cell when the five teen-age boys approached. One of the suspects later told authorities that the youths had been "lying in wait."

As the staffer tried to intervene, the teens began a "relentless" attack that continued until the victim "was lying defenseless, on the ground." The five youths then began kicking the victim in the head, face, torso and legs, the statement said.

It said several minutes elapsed before enough staff members arrived to break up the fight and lock up the suspects.

The disturbance was captured on video surveillance cameras. Edwards said the department was so pleased with staff members' performance that it may use the tape to help train workers on how to react in such emergencies.

The suspects, all from Baltimore, are being held at an adult detention facility without bail, according to Edwards.

They were identified as Mansor Aleem, 15; Travis Oliver, 15; Kenneth Price, 15; Tavon Washington, 15; and Antonio Watson, 14. Under state law, juveniles charged with violent offenses are often tried as adults.

The disturbance comes as the state has been struggling to adequately staff its eight juvenile detention centers, where staffing levels often fall short of federal targets. Juveniles charged with offenses including drug dealing and robbery are sent to the centers to await court dates or placement in treatment programs.

At many facilities, including Cheltenham and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, staff shortages have contributed to assaults and various disturbances, according to the independent state monitor's office. Last year, the monitor cited inadequate staffing levels and "untrained, overworked" employees as a factor in a March riot at Cheltenham.

Of the latest attack, state Sen. Brian E. Frosh said yesterday, "I'm horrified that kind of injury could occur when someone is in state custody."

Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require the department to come up with a 10-year plan to make placement in large detention centers a last resort. The legislation would put a priority on treatment.

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