Conditions at Hickey shocked Md. officials

Contractor mismanaged school, state discovered

May 27, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

When the state assumed control of its sprawling Charles H. Hickey Jr. School from a private contractor on April 1, it found an out-of-control wreck of a juvenile detention center where housing units reeked of urine, graffiti covered walls, and locks didn't work on the doors of the rooms of dozens of potentially dangerous offenders.

Conditions at the state facility in Baltimore County were even worse under the management of Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International than previously disclosed, an investigation by The Sun has found and state officials now acknowledge.

Malfunctioning motion sensors couldn't detect escapes. One dormitory was in such bad shape that it had to be shut down. Scores of youths with not enough to do were stashing scissors and pens for weapons. Dozens of the adults in charge had criminal or drug-abuse histories that should have prevented them from working at the program for juvenile offenders.

State Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. says he hadn't realized how bad things were until the Florida-based company left.

"We were shocked and surprised," Montague said in an interview this week.

The state had been paying the contractor about $16 million a year to run Hickey, home to about 185 boys, including some of Maryland's most troubled and violent juvenile lawbreakers. Though the population has varied, the company was getting at least $60,000 for each youth per year - several times the cost of tuition at an elite private high school.

Montague said the state knew about some of the problems but that "a lot of it was not visible, was not something you could see physically. The sensors on the security fence weren't working. The phone system wouldn't support enough lines."

He said that the company left virtually no accounting of how and when millions of dollars in state money was spent. "There was no budget," Montague said.

Since April 1, he said, the state has been working diligently to make repairs, clean, paint, remove graffiti and fix broken toilets that contributed to the urine smell.

A prominent child advocate says it was the state's responsibility all along to know how bad conditions had become.

The state must ultimately be held accountable for Hickey's failings, even though it was managed by a private company, said Bart Lubow of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which aids disadvantaged children.

"If you're going to go the private route, you have to monitor," Lubow said. "The state had a contractual obligation to oversee the contract with these folks. The fact that you contract something out doesn't mean you wash your hands of responsibility."

Said Montague: "Look, I'm sure there are plenty of things we could have done better ... But when things were brought to my attention, we took action."

Asked whether the state should have broken the contractor's latest five-year contract before it expired on March 31, Montague replied, "I think had I known the full scope of deficiencies there, I would have seriously moved in that direction."

He said the state is withholding $1.8 million that the vendor has requested for Hickey expenditures because there isn't documentation to prove the money was spent as claimed.

Also missing were personnel records to inform the state whether the 320-member staff had proper credentials and was trained to deal with youths. The state had to conduct new background checks on all the workers, finding that 40 were unfit to remain on the job.

Calls to several officials at CSC/YSI seeking comment for this article were not returned.

Hickey, on a 200-acre campus a mile southeast of Loch Raven Reservoir, serves several purposes in the state's juvenile justice system. It is a detention center for youths awaiting trial, a holding area for those waiting for placement in various treatment programs, and a training school - classrooms and all - for young offenders serving sentences that can last more than a year.

The population, all male, includes youths charged or convicted of crimes that include assault and armed robbery.

The facility has had a history of violent incidents, including abuse by staff. Incidents this year include one in which a Hickey youth was allegedly assaulted by two staff members who held him in his room and repeatedly punched him in the face. The staff members were criminally charged.

The U.S. Justice Department reported last month "a deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse of youth by staff" and "unacceptably high levels of youth-on-youth violence."

The department's civil rights investigation concluded that Hickey and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County were violating the civil rights of the hundreds of youths confined there.

Juvenile Services Department officials say they are cooperating with the federal investigators to remedy the problems.

While Montague said he was aware of many of issues at Hickey, he said the extent of problems was not clear until the state brought in experts - such as engineers - after the vendor left.

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