Starting over, again

April 01, 2004

OLD-TIMERS will find the routine at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School today much like what they witnessed more than a decade ago.

Crisis counselors and top brass will fan out over the dilapidated campus, reassuring the troubled youngsters and staff there that a state takeover of the privately run detention and rehabilitation facility poses no threat. Work crews will set about restoring quality-of-life basics: airing out rank dorms, removing mold and dirt, polishing floors and replacing windows so gunked up or scarred the sun can't shine through. Before long, group activities and student government programs should be operating again.

The challenge for state officials will be to avoid so thoroughly following the pattern of the 1993 Hickey takeover that this fresh start once again ends in disastrous failure.

When the Department of Juvenile Services fired the contractor running Hickey in 1993 and took over the center, the goal was to stem security lapses and stop persistent attacks on juveniles and staff. Yet, after a hopeful start with a new contractor, conditions deteriorated even further. Now, as the state again takes over from a failed contractor, the ramshackle buildings are a decade older and holding far too many of the state's most troubled kids. Nearly half of the juveniles are taking drugs to counter mental or behavioral illnesses. The assault rate averages 2.5 a day.

DJS officials' undiminished faith in the ability of private contractors to manage the facility isn't reassuring. The General Assembly is wisely considering a directive giving the state agency Hickey's management on a permanent basis by 2007.

There are private providers who can give quality care, but it isn't clear that using them would be cost-effective. Plus, when using contractors, there is a guaranteed disconnect: DJS monitors Hickey and can order the contractor to make changes, but the department carries only the unwieldy stick of monetary fines for enforcement. It should be a lot easier for DJS investigators to compel state employees to improve service.

The department must use this interim period to assess what's not working, and spell out what it expects from staffers and from juveniles - including respect for all. It must set a tone of working together toward rehabilitation, keeping kids motivated and involved in their therapy, activities, sports and schooling - and keeping staffers motivated to help them succeed. There is a solid core of front-line staffers committed to these kids that DJS can build on.

The gradual decline in quality and increase in the violence against youths and staff that occurred during the tenure of private management must be halted and never repeated. The cost of doing otherwise is too high, both in monetary terms and in the opportunities lost for Hickey's wards. On DJS's watch, this time, lasting progress must be made.

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