40 employed at Hickey fail to make grade

State screening finds them unfit to remain at work

History of crime, drugs noted

Md. took over juvenile detention facility April 1

May 08, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill has employed 40 people in recent months who failed to meet state requirements, in many cases because of histories of crimes or drug abuse, a Sun review has found.

The unqualified workers were discovered after the state began running the troubled juvenile detention center April 1, when its contract with a private operator expired.

The school, which houses 188 juvenile offenders, has been beset by violence, including abuse by staff. Recent incidents there have included a fight in February involving four teen-agers and a staff member that sent two youths to a hospital. The same month, The Sun reported that a Hickey youth was assaulted by two staff members who held him in his room and repeatedly punched him in the face.

When it took over in April, the state asked all those employed at the facility to re-apply for their jobs, and it began screening all 320 of them. It soon learned that the contractor - Florida-based Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International - had hired workers the state considers unfit.

"It's my understanding there were people here who would not have passed background checks," said former Baltimore police officer Joseph Newman, a Department of Juvenile Services consultant, in an interview yesterday. "There were a number of people who did not meet state requirements and were not offered contracts to work here."

Of the 320 original workers, 260 chose to remain. Of the 60 who did not stay, 40 "just didn't meet our standards" because they failed background checks or didn't meet minimum education requirements, said Juvenile Services spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards. She said the rest didn't apply to be retained.

Although the school would not identify the workers who did not meet standards or their positions, most Hickey employees work directly with the juveniles.

After a civil rights investigation, the U.S. Justice Department said in a report last month that it believed workers with felony convictions and histories of using excessive force were being hired at Hickey and the Cheltenham Youth Facility, another state-run detention center, in Prince George's County.

"Notably, we found several instances where we believe that staff with either felony convictions or previous histories of excessive force in a juvenile detention facility were involved in incidents of abuse," the department said in the report to the state last month.

But the report didn't say how many workers might have been hired despite criminal backgrounds. The state says it didn't know the scope of the problem until recently, after the contractor left.

A top Juvenile Services official the agency was dismayed to learn that so many workers were improperly hired, especially since the department has made a public priority of improving conditions at its eight detention centers. "We certainly weren't happy with this," said Rudy Adams, a Juvenile Services assistant secretary.

Inquiries to Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International, based in Sarasota, Fla., were referred yesterday to Eric Gallon in the division that handles juvenile facilities. Gallon was unavailable for comment.

Hickey, in northeastern Baltimore County near Loch Raven Reservoir, opened in 1850 as the House of Refuge. It houses some of the state's most serious juvenile offenders. Some youths are in detention awaiting court dates, while others have been committed there by judges.

Attracting qualified youth workers has been a persistent problem at Maryland's juvenile detention centers. The state pays entry-level youth supervisors between $20,000 and $25,000 - significantly less than their counterparts in surrounding states.

At Hickey, the staff had been earning even less under the private contractor - a little more than $19,000, Adams said.

"It's my understanding the pay was increased as much as $1,800 to $2,400 for entry-level people" when the state took over, Newman said.

The state plans to run Hickey temporarily while it hires a new private operator in the next several months. In the interim, workers are being treated as contract employees and are not receiving health benefits.

When it took over, the state found other problems at Hickey besides the staff. In one dormitory, 24 of 30 locks on residents' doors were broken, Newman said. Many of the buildings were dirty and had graffiti.

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