Hickey search put on hold

State may not seek operator to run school

`Looking at all ... options'

Troubled facility needs outside help, advocates say

July 23, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Maryland juvenile justice officials have stopped, at least temporarily, looking for a private contractor to run the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and may continue to operate the Baltimore County school themselves rather than seek a new vendor, state officials said yesterday.

The move was sharply criticized by some advocates who questioned the state's ability to properly run the facility for troubled youths.

"It's challenging to know which thing Juvenile Services would do worse - overseeing someone else running Hickey or running it themselves - because they've done both things so abjectly poorly," said Vincent Schiraldi, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute.

LaWanda Edwards, a Department of Juvenile Services spokeswoman, said vendors were informed about a week ago of the state's decision to withdraw a request for proposals that had been distributed to companies that expressed interest in running Hickey.

She said that step was necessary because circumstances have changed since bid specifications were drawn up in December.

The number of youths housed at Hickey has steadily declined since last year, from 264 to 170, Edwards said, which has altered the scope of services called for in the proposed contract.

"The department is currently looking at all its options, including us running it ourselves," Edwards said.

State officials will make a decision within the next month or two, she added.

Florida-based Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International had operated Hickey under a five-year contract that ended March 31. The state Department of Juvenile Services has been running it while searching for a new operator.

Hickey serves as a detention center for youths awaiting trial, a holding area for those awaiting placement in treatment programs, and offers training programs for young offenders serving sentences that can last more than a year.

The facility, on a 200-acre campus about a mile southeast of Loch Raven Reservoir, has a history of violent incidents, including abuse by staff.

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

Stacey Gurian-Sherman of JJ Fair, a statewide advocacy group that works with youth and families, said the problems noted by the Justice Department reflect poor oversight of Hickey by Maryland juvenile justice officials.

She said it is unlikely that the same officials who did such a poor job of monitoring how CSC/YSI ran Hickey would do any better job of running it themselves.

"These people did an absolutely disgraceful job," Gurian-Sherman said.

Schiraldi, of the Justice Policy Institute, suggested the governor consider letting a nonprofit group that works with juveniles run Hickey.

Edwards said she does not disagree that the Juvenile Services department "historically has not done a great job in running some of our bigger facilities" such as Hickey.

"However, it's a new administration, and we're very dedicated," she said. "If we decide the state is going to run it, we will be very dedicated in making sure that all the kids' needs are met."

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who is chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he thinks contracting out services such as Hickey's operations is "very bad policy."

He said a contractor has financial incentives to run such facilities in ways that do not necessarily serve the best interests of Maryland youths.

"I think you're much more likely to get better administration if the department is running it than if you're passing it on to a third party," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Legislation passed last year calls for the state to eventually shrink or close Hickey and its other big detention centers.

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