A fight yesterday involving four teen-agers and a staff member at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School sent two youths to the hospital, just as state police were beginning efforts to bolster security at the troubled juvenile detention center.
The confluence of events put state Juvenile Services Department officials in the awkward position of promoting a new security initiative one moment only to have to explain yet another outbreak of violence the next. And it occurred amid growing criticism that disorder in the detention centers has reached critical levels.
"I think the point has been made that circumstances at these facilities need improvement," Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said. "So the fact that we are instituting these initiatives should let staff members and members of the public know that we are trying to make those environments better."
Critics weren't convinced.
"It's a Band-Aid approach to a mortal wound," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of the children's advocacy group JJ Fair. "The vast majority of these children are in these facilities for nonviolent offenses, and the abuse is happening every day. We're not just talking about physical abuse - youth on youth, or staff on youth - we're talking about a sick system that the Department of Juvenile Services has shown itself to be incapable of remedying."
Officials said the new security initiative came together hastily Friday, after Montague called Maryland State Police Superintendent Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins. By late that night, they had agreed on a plan: State police patrols would immediately begin stopping by, every hour, at the Hickey School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.
Beginning today, the plan also calls for a state police investigator to serve a full shift daily at each facility, either in the day or the evening.
Hickey, which houses about 260 boys, is run by Youth Services International, a private contractor based in Sarasota, Fla. The state runs the 132-year-old Cheltenham facility, which houses about 100. Youths charged with offenses ranging from drug possession to armed robbery are sent to the centers to await court dates or placement in treatment programs.
The new security plan is a stopgap response to a spate of violence at the facilities, a surge which has had legislators up in arms, partly because of the length of time it has taken for some episodes to come to light.
Two weeks ago, state police disclosed that four staff members at Cheltenham had been charged with assaulting a 17-year-old on Nov. 30. Police reports said the youth was held down and repeatedly kicked and punched in the chest and face.
Last week, the news surfaced that a youth at Hickey had been assaulted Jan. 13 by two staff members who allegedly held him in his room and repeatedly punched him in the face, according to police records. The two men were charged by state police with assault.
Legislators have also heard recent testimony describing frequent drug use at the facilities, both by resident youths and staff members. That's one reason the new security plan calls for a tough regimen of extra drug searches.
Yesterday's violence at Hickey provided an early test of the new security plan. About 8:30 a.m., according to Juvenile Services spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards, there was "an altercation between four youths and a staff member."
Two of the youths, whose ages range from 14 to 17, were taken to area hospitals, one to be treated for a broken tooth and cut lip, and the other for a puncture wound to the head. Both were released after treatment, Edwards said. The staff member involved was placed on administrative leave, pending the results of a criminal investigation by state police.
Although the new hourly patrols had begun two days earlier, no state police officer was present at the time of the fight. The significance of the bad timing wasn't lost on the department's critics.
"To just have somebody swinging by once an hour isn't going to do it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat who is chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "And perhaps the incident today is an example of why."
Nearly lost in the rush of yesterday's events was the report of another violent incident Friday at Hickey.
A 14-year-old boy awaiting transportation to court in Hickey's "bullpen" was attacked by another youth who attempted to set his clothes on fire, according to Juvenile Services officials. The boy's aunt, Rondalyn Vaughn-Horton, said that his mother appealed to a juvenile judge later that day not to send him back to Hickey.
"The state is supposed to be looking out for his well-being," Vaughn-Horton said in an interview, "but the whole time he was out at Hickey he was fighting for his life every day."
The judge complied, assigning the youth instead to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which opened in October. The center has helped ease crowding at Cheltenham but has already had its own reports of violence. A 16-year-old boy was severely beaten there last month by five other youths, who have been charged as adults with attempted murder.
Vaughn-Horton said her nephew was threatened at the center two days ago by other youths for not giving up a telephone quickly enough.
"I am just dumbfounded by these reports of violence and abuse, but it's not just Hickey, it's not just Cheltenham," Gurian-Sherman said. "It's a system that relies on facilities that we wouldn't put our dogs in."