Staffing low at juvenile center

Safety of youths, others at detention facility in city compromised, report says

Advocates say `chaos' confirmed

Monitor notes attacks, escape and suicide tries

September 14, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The state-run Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center is so understaffed that it poses a serious threat to the safety of youths held there and to staff who supervise them, according to a report released yesterday.

The report by the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor portrays an institution in chaos - with youths attacking each other and staff, setting fires, climbing walls to escape and attempting suicide.

The center, which is staffed for 48 youths, held 106 when the monitor's office visited last month. The office was established to independently monitor conditions in Maryland's chronically troubled juvenile facilities.

"There are ongoing occurrences of youth on youth assaults within the facility," the report says. "There also have been many incidences of youth on staff assaults. These conditions constitute a failure to provide youth and staff with a reasonable expectation of safety."

As an example of the staffing problems, the report noted what happened after a search of the facility in June that turned up homemade knives and other contraband.

"Upset over being removed from their living units and placed in the hot, outside recreation area," the report says, "some youth [caused] a group disturbance by barricading themselves in a housing unit and setting a fire."

Police had to be called to help staff control the situation.

The report says youths are sometimes kept in their cells for extended periods, especially on weekends, because of inadequate staffing.

The center, on Gay Street, is a juvenile jail that holds youths arrested in Baltimore while they await court hearings. According to the report, their lawyers and other advocates are afraid to meet with them there.

"The Public Defender's Office complains that they cannot conduct interviews with youth because they feel the detention facility is not safe and secure," the report says. "Various ministerial volunteer groups have not been visiting the facility for fear of their own safety."

LaWanda Edwards, spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services said the agency disputes some of the monitor's findings, but agrees the Baltimore center is understaffed.

Edwards said the department is moving to hire more staff. But finding qualified people willing to work for pay that "is not as high as we'd like" is a challenge, she said.

"We want to make sure with drug testing, criminal background and psychological testing that we get the best possible people," Edwards said.

She said workers from other Maryland juvenile facilities have been shifted to the Baltimore center to cope with the staffing shortage until more people can be hired.

State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, who heads the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he is concerned about apparent "systemic problems" with juvenile services programs.

"There seem to be problems in every facility," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "If they need more money, they've got to come in and tell us. They've got to solve the problem. It's not enough to say we're going to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic anymore."

Advocates described the report as "shocking" and said immediate steps need to be taken.

"The report confirms what we've been saying for months: It's chaos on Gay Street, and youths' lives are at risk," said Cameron Miles, community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

Edwards said juvenile detention facilities around the country have long been understaffed and the problem is not unique to Maryland. She said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made fixing problems in the state's juvenile programs a priority.

"Two years is not enough to make all of the changes we need to make," she said.

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