No kidding

May 30, 2004

CONDITIONS AT the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for accused and confirmed juvenile delinquents are worse than the state Department of Juvenile Services even knew.

Hello?

Guess all those details in the twice-a-year state monitor's reports, periodic internal audits, biannual legislative audits, a U.S. Department of Justice letter, news reports and State House testimony by parents and former Hickey residents weren't proof enough. Internal and state police incident reports containing such phrases as "broken locks" on bedroom doors didn't raise red flags. An apparent lack of annual fiscal accounting, year upon year, by the contractor who holds DJS' biggest contract didn't furrow a brow.

It may be that those fulfilling the private contract to run Hickey did keep some of the sordid details to themselves, though their lawyer strongly denies that. But there was more than a hint of the depth of problems at Hickey, among them reports of chronic understaffing and observations of the grimy floors and dingy, graffittied walls and windows. Plenty enough for the state to have been prompted to deeply investigate what was going on on its own property, and with its own kids.

To his credit, DJS Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr., "shocked and surprised" by conditions at Hickey, seems eager to fix things. It's unfortunate that he didn't seem to know of the problems until now, since he has been secretary since January 2003.

Mr. Montague may be a relative newbie at the department, but many of his top managers are longtimers, including those who directly oversee facilities and contracts. Wasn't it their job to make sure Mr. Montague knew just how bad things were so he would not have to embarrass the agency before the public by pleading ignorance?

All hands must pledge sharper oversight if the state turns Hickey over to another private contractor, as expected this summer. It's what they get paid for.

For now, the department owes an apology to every child who spent his nights and days in state custody fearful, and to all the parents who feared for their children. And a promise it never will happen again.

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