Maryland's shame

April 19, 2004

THE RESULTS of a 20-month federal investigation into conditions at two Maryland juvenile detention centers are absolutely appalling - but they are hardly surprising. The findings, announced Friday, should be a source of shame to everyone involved in making excuses for what goes on at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

The U.S. Justice Department found that juveniles are at serious risk at those two facilities because of "constitutional deficiencies" in how they are consigned and monitored, how they are treated for mental and physical health issues, how they are educated, and how they are protected from fire, from violent staff, and from one another.

It would be very bad news indeed, if it were news at all. But that is exactly what was found in a Department of Juvenile Services audit a dozen years ago, reported in a legislative audit only a few years ago and detailed in state monitors' reports every three months for the last two years. What's more, candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. brought up the state's juvenile detention mess repeatedly during his successful run for governor nearly two years ago.

So what is DJS doing?

Waiting for state money to begin working up a master plan. Waiting for the governor's signature on legislation that requires extensive reporting from the department on a host of issues. Talking the feds into waiting before filing a civil rights lawsuit because the state has been so cooperative in the investigation.

But waiting has been going on for years. Meanwhile, abusive practices uncovered by the federal investigation include:

Assaults by staff on juvenile residents.

Faulty door locks that allow larger youths to prey on smaller ones.

Methods of restraining the youths that can, and do, injure them.

Denial of access to bathrooms.

Withholding prescribed medicine, including medication for attention deficit disorder and psychotic conditions.

Poorly trained staff, some of whom have felony convictions and histories of violence against juveniles.

Residents at Hickey and Cheltenham are often not particularly easy children to work with, but they are in Maryland's care, and they deserve the state's best effort. How they are treated, educated and protected in the state's detention facilities can have an impact - for better or worse - on the kind of adults they grow up to be.

Yet obviously, a sense of urgency has been lacking. Even this new report sounds disappointingly sanguine when it comes to demanding remedies. But it nonetheless can force change through consent decrees or judge's orders. And the message is undeniably clear: Visible, tangible changes must happen, now.

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