30 disciplined in abuses at Cheltenham

5 staff members fired in alleged mistreatment at Md. juvenile facility

May 21, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

In the past six months, the state has quietly disciplined 30 youth workers at its Cheltenham juvenile detention center in Prince George's County for mistreating or neglecting boys in their care.

At least five of the workers were fired in connection with alleged assaults on youths, Cheltenham Superintendent Jimmy Lewis said in an interview yesterday. Others were suspended, demoted or reprimanded for using excessive force or for improper supervision, he said.

While officials would not detail the 30 cases, many were described in dozens of internal incident reports - obtained by The Sun in a public records request - in which youths as young as 11 allege that they were punched or slapped by staff members, grabbed by the hair and stabbed with a pen.

"We've still got some training to do," Lewis said. He said the facility, which houses 78 boys awaiting court dates or placement in a treatment center, has recently begun offering its 70 youth supervisors extra sessions on the proper use of force.

But training may not be enough, said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of the children's advocacy group JJ Fair. She said senior administrators at the state Department of Juvenile Services, which oversees Cheltenham, "have proven themselves incapable of caring for children. I don't know what will wake up average Marylanders to the fact that children are being brutalized at juvenile detention centers."

In February, Juvenile Services officials said four Cheltenham staff members were fired for holding down a 17-year-old resident and striking him repeatedly. The November beating was disclosed by the department - 2 1/2 months later - because state police had reported that the employees had been charged criminally. In early March, the department reported the firing of a fifth worker charged with striking a youth in the head with a radio handset in February.

The incident reports describe dozens more instances, not previously made public, in which staff members allegedly used unwarranted force or violated other department rules. The reports are workers' accounts of complaints made by youths - or other staff members - alleging improper behavior.

According to the reports:

A resident was allegedly placed in a chokehold by another resident late last year for refusing to hand over snack food. Even as the boy was "gasping" for air, he maintained that the "staff on duty did not attempt to intervene." The victim also said a staff member was hitting residents with a stick.

A resident alleged that a female staff member "threatened him by telling him that she was going to have other youth `[beat] him up,' and that she could put a hit out on him."

A youth worker was observed in December by a fellow staff member "using excessive profanity and grabbing a youth by his hair." She was suspended without pay for 15 days, according to Lewis.

A youth alleged in February that a staff member attacked him with a pen.

Juvenile Services officials would not provide the results of their investigations of individual complaints over the past six months but said that they led to disciplinary action against at least 30 staff members.

The state has acknowledged difficulty hiring and retaining competent youth supervisors at Cheltenham and its seven other detention centers. Part of the problem is that Maryland pays the supervisors significantly less than their counterparts in surrounding states. A youth supervisor's starting salary is $23,722 - an amount due to rise 5 percent in July under the budget for the next fiscal year. The workers provide round-the-clock supervision at the facilities.

Cheltenham opened in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys. The center is surrounded by a high fence topped with razor wire and sits in a wooded, residential area. It has faded brick buildings and ball fields overgrown with weeds.

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department told the state that Cheltenham and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County are substantially violating the civil rights of the hundreds of youths confined there.

The department said it found "credible evidence of significant physical abuse of youth residents at the hands of both staff and other youth at the facilities."

The state has said it will cooperate with the department to try to resolve significant issues.

Cheltenham youths - whose offenses range from parole violations to armed robbery - live in stark, cinderblock dormitories called "cottages" and attend school inside the facility's gates.

During a news media tour of the facility yesterday, administrators pointed to a sign hanging on many of the cottage walls encouraging residents to practice "control and anger management." Residents were seen marching in line to lunch, wearing white T-shirts and color-coded shorts that signify the unit in which they live.

Lewis, the superintendent, said during the tour that the recent shrinking of the facility's population should make it easier to keep residents orderly without resorting to force. The center allows the use of certain types of force to prevent personal harm, escapes or damage to property. Staff workers are not permitted to carry weapons inside the gates.

A few years ago, Cheltenham housed as many as 300 youths, Lewis said. Today, it has about one-fourth that. The biggest reason is the opening in October of the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which created extra space for Baltimore juvenile offenders who once would have been sent to Cheltenham.

Today, the Cheltenham population is almost exclusively from Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties and Southern Maryland.

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