Under wraps

February 19, 2004

IS IT ONCE again state policy to cover up violent incidents on state property? Apparently that is the Department of Juvenile Services' procedure when children in its care are beaten so badly they need to go to the hospital.

Department officials acknowledge that they have asked state police, who have jurisdiction over the state's juvenile holding tanks, not to give out information about their investigations of such violence without consulting the department first. DJS itself has not given out the information, which makes it nearly impossible for the public to know what is going on. Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Stephanie Desmon reported on two attacks in the past week; we hope they are the only two, but those who can say for sure will not.

In a holding pod at the new Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center last month, five detained youths allegedly ganged up on another, beating and kicking him even after he fell to the ground. A supervisor was with the victim and tried to stop the beating, and other supervisors came within minutes to break up the attack and lock up the suspects. The victim was taken to Maryland Shock Trauma Center with severe head and torso injuries and a broken leg; the five youths are now in adult prison, charged with attempted murder. DJS didn't acknowledge the Jan. 29 attack until Tuesday.

Last Nov. 30, a young man at the Cheltenham Youth Facility was assaulted, allegedly by four DJS supervisors, so badly he needed hospital attention the next day. That attack wasn't disclosed by DJS until a state police barracks -- not the official state police information office -- issued a press release on the arrest of the four adults. Would that incident have been reported at all -- not just 2 1/2 months after -- if the state police had followed protocol, consulted with DJS, and been told to remain silent?

Many juveniles in these facilities are tough kids, with chips on their shoulders and much to prove to their peers. State police say that at Cheltenham reports of youth-on-youth attacks, from shoving to serious assaults, come in at 15 to 20 a month. It's reasonable that DJS wouldn't report every instance of shoving, but it must report incidents that land kids in the hospital. In both recent cases, some staff did respond appropriately, the injured got care and those responsible are being dealt with.

But in a department that has been criticized over persistent violence in its detention centers, secrecy helps no one. Under past DJS secretaries, such incidents were reported publicly, stirring plenty of discussion over how better to keep these kids safe, including the installation of independent monitors and the redesign of buildings. Apparently, this administration's answer is to speak no evil, so as to hear no evil. We trust it can still see it.

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