Juvenile Services head defends agency

Says jail-staffing problem addressed since spring

September 18, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Embattled Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. defended his agency's management of the Baltimore juvenile detention center yesterday as he outlined plans to address problems raised in a scathing monitor's report.

"No one should doubt the commitment of this administration, or myself, to the safety and well-being of the children in our care," Montague said at a news conference at the state-run Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street.

He said he has been working since last spring to address staffing shortages at the $60 million center, which opened in October, but that it has been a cumbersome, slow process.

Staff is being shifted from other juvenile facilities to help, he said, and a process has been set up to speed the hiring of additional workers. State police also will visit the center several times a day to bolster security, he said.

In a report this week, independent monitors said they found 106 youths being held at the center during an inspection last month, but only enough staff to safely handle half that number.

The monitors described an institution in chaos - with youths attacking each other and workers, setting fires, climbing walls to escape and attempting suicide.

The center houses teenage boys who have been arrested in Baltimore and are awaiting trial on charges such as theft, drug dealing and assault.

The Sun reported yesterday that the center's former director, Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, repeatedly warned her superiors over several months that inadequate staffing was creating unsafe conditions at the center. She resigned over the issue in June.

Work in progress

Montague said yesterday that he responded to those concerns, initiating plans to hire more staff and holding a job fair in June.

However, the hiring process has taken longer than he expected, he said.

"This plan is something we've been working on for a long time," he said.

Told of those comments, Hildreth said yesterday that safety concerns demanded immediate action.

"I've been a state administrator for 13 years, and I understand the cumbersomeness of the bureaucracy," she said.

"But I also know it is possible to move quickly when there is an emergency situation. By any standard of professional competence, it is expected that some result would have attained by now."

Advocates and legislators also said they were appalled at the apparent lack of urgency.

`There are no excuses'

They said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made reforming the state's troubled juvenile justice programs a priority during his campaign but complained he hasn't delivered on that promise.

"If there's a lack of staff, then that's the governor's responsibility," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat. "This is his second year. He said he was going to reform the system. There are no excuses."

Montague said he accepted full responsibility for his agency's performance.

"The governor's not going to solve this problem," he said. "That's my job. He's charged me with this responsibility."

He said he never told Ehrlich about Hildreth's memos.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, also said that Ehrlich was never told about the issue.

"The governor expects his senior leadership to resolve these issues before they arise," Fawell said. "When he was made aware this week, the governor took swift and certain action to solve this problem."

Montague said Ehrlich called other state agencies to help provide more staff and other resources to the Department of Juvenile Services until it can hire more employees.

"For the 16 years I was in the General Assembly, this system was broken," said Montague, a former legislator. "It's not going to take 16 years to fix it, but it is certainly going to take more than two years."

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