Why wait?

July 26, 2004

IT'S MOSTLY GOOD news that the state Department of Juvenile Services has stalled on looking for a private firm to run its Charles H. Hickey Jr. School.

Despite a dim history of adequately rehabilitating children and ensuring their safety at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and elsewhere, DJS must retain day-to-day control of Hickey. It took over running the campus April 1 and has been trying to reverse the steady decline during the tenure of its last private contractor.

DJS may have no choice: It's not clear what contractor would want to step in. The holding tank for wayward and allegedly wayward boys is haunted by the threat of federal action.

The Department of Justice declared in April that children held at Hickey and Cheltenham "suffer harm or the risk of harm from constitutional deficiencies in the facilities' confinement practices, suicide prevention measures, mental health and medical care services, and fire safety." Harm such as staff assaulting kids and kids assaulting one another; risks such as cell doors that don't lock. The state and the Justice Department are talking about how to fix the problems, and if they don't agree, Justice could sue to make any changes.

Potential contractors also might not like the legislative directive that the state must take over running Hickey by July 1, 2007. That doesn't leave much time for getting in, getting started and getting profitable.

And let's not forget the mold in the kitchen requiring that food be brought in. One wonders what the results would be if all Hickey's dilapidated dormitories and service buildings were tested.

DJS officials, who said they were shocked and saddened by conditions at Hickey, bear the burden of fixing them. If part of the problem, as they claim, was a disconnect between the department and the contractor, that's one part that already is remedied. No one can now say he or she doesn't know what is going on at Hickey, or who is responsible.

A state-run Hickey also fits with the department's master reform plan. One goal is to break the bigger facilities into smaller, targeted programs spread among regions and neighborhoods; having Hickey in state control means this change could begin before 2007.

But officials, unwisely, plan to take another month or two to decide whether they will issue a new contract request or make the takeover permanent -- a question they've been debating since at least December. While they play a will-we, won't-we game, the people they have hired to improve the center feel the pain. Front-line staffers are now officially temporary hires, so they don't get the medical benefits they enjoyed until April. Overtime has been cut, but staffing levels still aren't adequate, leading the best workers to work longer, and for free. Overworked, ill-paid in comparison with their counterparts in neighboring states, and unsure how long the decision will really take, these core stalwarts are sorely tempted to flee to greener pastures.

Hickey must stay in state hands; facility foster care won't cut it.

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