For jailed kids, service as usual

May 18, 2004

THE DEPARTMENT of Juvenile Services is running out of excuses. It's time for the people who run it to figure out how to keep kids in their care and the communities around them safe or find someone who can.

The beatings at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School have continued since DJS took it over six weeks ago. Three weeks ago, in a locked dorm under constant supervision, a 15-year-old entered a back bedroom not his own, placed a pillow over a 17-year-old's face and sexually assaulted him.

The next week, another inmate escaped by scaling the fence, then allegedly stole a neighbor's truck. He was caught about 2 1/2 hours later by police, treated for injuries and returned to the Cub Hill facility. Not all of Hickey's neighbors were warned of the escape: The phone-tree calling plan didn't work.

Just last Friday, a 15-year-old was assaulted by another youth in the newly spruced-up Clinton Hall dormitory and helicoptered to Johns Hopkins. Last Thursday, two staff members were reassigned while officials investigate an "incident involving a youth" who ended up in the infirmary with bruises and a black eye.

The department had been blaming the private company running Hickey for its ongoing violence, accusing it of not following procedures and best practices. The arrangement was also a convenient excuse for why DJS couldn't improve the situation - all it could do, it would say, is plead with the contractor to do better, then fine it years after the fact for its failure. "Failure," as in kids continuing to get hurt; the state monitor counts 2.5 violent incidents reported each day at Hickey, a number that has been consistent for years and appears to be unchanged since the state takeover April 1. The blame-the-contractor line is already getting threadbare.

DJS has a different excuse for the violence in the 6-month-old Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center detention pods, which it has always directly overseen. Last week, six youths at the center allegedly assaulted a 15-year-old, whose jaw was fractured. The same type of assault happened four months ago, when a 16-year-old was allegedly beaten by five youths who later were charged with attempted murder. Recently, one pod was vandalized so badly it was temporarily closed. In this case, DJS says, the brand-new facilities don't measure up to modern standards, with hallways too narrow and stacked cells too hard to monitor.

The excuse at the Cheltenham Youth Facility was age: Decrepit dorms and other amenities made it too hard to maintain order and safety.

DJS cannot continue to brush off its continuing troubles as historical. It may have built up a legacy of ills over many years, but although this administration campaigned on promises of reform, kids are still getting seriously hurt. Despite all the talk of master plans and new methods, the department's first mission, to borrow from medicine, is still to "do no harm."

Of course, the nearly 2,400 young men and women at Hickey and in other facilities were troubled before they fell into DJS' care; their difficulties are certainly not all of the department's making.

But they don't deserve further abuse, and they don't need to learn by department example that an excuse is as good as a solution. It's not.

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