No surprise

September 17, 2004

THE EHRLICH administration is shocked, shocked at the chaos endangering children at its Department of Juvenile Services detention center in Baltimore.

It is pledging immediate action as well as the usual everybody-get-together-make-a-plan plan.

Great. But who, exactly, has been running the show?

It's no surprise that things are bad at the facility, which houses youths accused of serious crimes until they appear in court. A state monitor's report covering January through March cites 91 "critical incidents," including youth assaults on other youths and on staff, alleged child abuse and kids talking about suicide.

That report pointed out the problems of breakable windows, shower doors and lights, as well as poorly designed beds and desks -- and pointed out that the inmate population was far more than current staffing could safely control. Readers of The Sun know of the beatings leading to hospital visits, the reports of abuse and, of course, the scathing state monitors' special report, dated three weeks ago but landing in newsprint just this week. But now, finally, it is an emergency.

DJS has run the facility since it opened last October; it didn't know things were going from bad to worse? At least one staffer was sounding the alarm: Longtime DJS executive and the center's first director, Phyllis D. K. Hildreth, sent memo after memo upstream describing the danger, and finally resigned, in part to make her point.

The jail at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center was intended to house the city's kids awaiting hearings who previously would have been sent to the Cheltenham Youth Facility or the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School. Since Cheltenham averaged at least 70 such juveniles, and Hickey another score more, it's clear that, everything staying the same, there would be far more than DJS' predicted 48 housed at the justice center.

And everything did stay the same. The number of juveniles taken into detention after arrest has been stable at around 150 per month since March, contrary to the state's claims that there was a recent spike. The afternoon reporting center, the first of the new programs intended to siphon some of the lesser alleged offenders away from detention, was again delayed by DJS because of money, meaning those kids instead are at the center. The only surprise is that officials say they are surprised.

Reacting in September to conditions that have been critical since early this year is not giving them "immediate response and attention," as DJS Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said Wednesday. But at least it's a start.

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