Rally decries youth facilities' conditions

Juvenile Services says reforms will take time

September 02, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Juvenile Jails Destroy" and chanting, "Books not bars," about 100 people rallied at the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center yesterday in protest of what they say are "nightmarish" and "harmful" conditions at state facilities for incarcerated children.

The rally was organized by the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition - which includes dozens of youth and family advocates, and follows reports of troubles at the city juvenile justice center, a $45 million, 144-bed facility that opened in October.

Last month, a 17-year-old boy escaped by scaling a three-story wall. In July, detainees barricaded themselves in a dorm recreation area. The first director of the center, Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, quit in June.

Two months after the state took over the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, the mother and stepmother of a detainee complained in July that they were not told he needed minor surgery until after the operation.

Protesters who gathered at the city facility on North Gay Street yesterday said they'd seen and heard enough.

"The state has a responsibility to turn these kids into individuals that we will not be afraid to meet on the street," said Cameron E. Miles, community outreach director for Advocates for Children and Youth.

Miles said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had made reform of the juvenile justice system a cornerstone of his 2000 campaign.

"Two years into office, Mr. Ehrlich, where is the reform?" Miles said as the crowd cheered. "Where are the programs?"

A spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services who attended the announced rally said that reforms are under way but will take time.

"Hopefully, next year at this time, this will all be a distant memory," said the spokeswoman, LaWanda Edwards.

She said a job fair in June attracted more than 1,000 applicants for positions at the city facility, which advocates have said is understaffed, and that background checks for potential employees are under way. Edwards said a new director of recreation at the city facility has been given the task of creating athletic activities.

Gambrills resident Erika Mills, whose son, now 19, was held at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County for six weeks last year, said she is eager to see proof of reform. At the rally, she described how her son was beaten by other boys and witnessed drug deals.

"I was appalled when I visited my son in the facility," Mills said. "He was frightened and exposed to things that are unfathomable to us. People don't understand what is going on in these institutions or there would be more outrage."

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