Official warned of staffing risks at youth center

Facility's former director pleaded for help in memos

September 17, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The former head of Baltimore's state-run juvenile detention center repeatedly warned her superiors that a serious staffing shortage was creating unsafe conditions for youths and employees, records show.

But memos from Phyllis D.K. Hildreth pleading for more staff went largely unheeded by the Ehrlich administration - until independent monitors weighed in this week with a blistering report about the $60 million facility.

Asked why the administration had not addressed staffing and other problems earlier, a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said last night: "Those are good questions. The governor has been very clear that he wants answers to those questions. And he has been clear that he will hold senior leadership accountable."

The Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor reported this week that it found more than 100 youths being held in a place with staff for less than half that number. The report portrayed an institution in chaos - with youths attacking each other and workers, setting fires, climbing walls to escape and attempting suicide.

In a series of increasingly desperate memos before she resigned in June, Hildreth warned that she feared the lack of staffing would lead to just such problems at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.

"Our data and our experience tell us the same thing: We cannot safely operate detention programming for 72-75 youth with staffing levels designed for 48 youth," she wrote in a March memo to top Department of Juvenile Services administrators.

`Dangerous conditions'

The understaffing, she said, was creating "stressful, dangerous conditions."

Two months later, the center's population had grown to 107 youngsters, according to a May 24 memo that Hildreth sent to the department's personnel director and others. The center had enough beds for those youngsters, but not enough workers to supervise them.

"The situation is serious," Hildreth wrote. "I am concerned about our ability to keep youth and staff physically safe."

She pointed out that most of the workers were women and she was concerned for their well-being guarding sometimes unruly young men. Often, only one staff member would be in a locked, 12-bed unit to supervise a dozen youths, most of them age 15 to 17, she said.

A 12-bed unit should have two supervisors, she said, and some situations are hard to control even with that staffing level.

"I am requesting immediate assistance to identify staff resources required to bring us within the range of safe operations," Hildreth wrote in her May 24 memo.

In an interview last week with The Sun, Hildreth said she resolved to resign soon after because the staffing issues weren't being addressed.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. declined to comment for this article. He canceled an interview with The Sun that had been scheduled for yesterday. LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the agency, also declined to comment. She said any questions would be addressed at a news conference at 11:30 a.m. today at the center.

But Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, said last night that the administration is moving to address concerns about the center.

Making improvements

"Governor Ehrlich expects dramatic improvement in the facility, and he expects it now. His message was unmistakable: We will do whatever it takes to improve conditions at the facility." The administration announced a plan Wednesday to improve staffing, and further details are expected today.

Hildreth, a lawyer, had once been chief counsel for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and later was a deputy secretary at the Department of Juvenile Justice under Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

She left along with other Glendening appointees with the change of administrations, but Montague brought her back in April 2003 to head the new juvenile detention center in Baltimore, which began housing youths in October.

The 144-bed center, located on North Gay Street at Fallsway, is designed to house teen-age boys who have been arrested in Baltimore and are awaiting trial on charges such as theft, drug dealing and assault.

In announcing Hildreth's appointment, Montague described her as "extremely capable." He said "her strong ties to the community make her the ideal candidate to carry out the governor's and my vision for the delivery of services to children under the care of the juvenile justice system."

Several legislators and advocates contacted yesterday faulted Ehrlich for not addressing the staffing problems when Hildreth began raising them last spring.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who recommended Hildreth's appointment, said he was surprised she wasn't given the resources she needed to do the job properly.

"If it had been done, that would have prevented the problem we're in right now," McFadden said.

He said he knows Hildreth informed Montague about her concerns and is confident Montague would have shared them with the governor.

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