Ehrlich hopes we forget his promises to kids

September 21, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ONE THING you have to give the governor of Maryland: Nothing embarrasses him. Two years ago, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. runs for office as the champion of troubled kids, and 10 minutes after his election forgets he ever opened his mouth. If politics is the art of behaving as if nobody has any memory, this governor is Picasso.

So, just to remind everyone: In his campaign for governor, Ehrlich punched out Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's lights over the juvenile justice system. Day after relentless day, he rapped the lieutenant governor's oversight of abusive state-run boot camps and promised a shining new "child-first culture" in the juvenile lockups. Now, with headlines describing a system in continuing catastrophe, the governor declares, with all the courage he can muster, "Huh? Why didn't anybody tell me about this?"

And lets other people put even those puny words in his mouth.

Eleven months after the opening of the $60 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center - a fancy name for a holding facility for children - an independent inspection finds conditions at the North Gay Street facility posing "threats to the life, health and safety" of the youths housed there, including inexcusable crowding and understaffing, fires, filth, suicide attempts and riots.

In other words, conditions similar to those found earlier by U.S. Department of Justice inspectors at two of the state's longer-established youth facilities, the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

Wonderful.

In the face of last week's revelations, we had the governor's subordinates running interference for him. First we had Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, saying the governor was never told about the juvenile system's troubles.

"The governor expects his senior leadership to resolve these issues before they arise," said Fawell. "When he was made aware ... "

When he was made aware?

Then, on Friday, we had Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. holding a news conference in the lobby of the Gay Street facility. Why, Montague was asked afterward, wasn't the governor there to answer questions?

"The governor doesn't have knowledge of the details of this issue," Montague said. "I don't expect him to."

In other words, others will have to take the heat. Montague, maybe, or lower-level officials doing their mad daily scramble with lack of money and manpower - despite all that chest-thumping, in the dimly remembered campaign of two years ago, about a sweeping reorganization of the system.

Remember? Two years ago, Ehrlich said he would replace the current system with one emphasizing drug and mental-health treatment and less incarceration.

"Our plan is about kids, not creating new criminals," Ehrlich said. "Maryland has become a more dangerous place and tragedies have become commonplace, and this tragedy lies on the doorstep of the Glendening-Townsend administration," Ehrlich declared.

Question: If it was fair enough to lay blame on the old lieutenant governor, why isn't it fair to blame the current governor?

"Imagine that," said Cameron E. Miles, community outreach director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "Now they're trying to say the governor didn't know. Come on, we've had four meetings with Montague over the last several months and told him this place was a powder keg. Why would he not tell the governor how bad these conditions are? Ehrlich just doesn't want to take the blame. Even Stevie Wonder could see that."

Miles stood there as Montague outlined staffing changes that he said would straighten out some of the mess. "I've been coming in here every Wednesday since January to monitor the place," Miles said. "These kids are playing cards, they're on the phone, they're getting themselves in trouble because there's nobody here to oversee them. If they get any schooling at all, it's 8 to 11 in the morning. They see they're being ignored. They know when people don't care. This governor cares about slots and forgets about the children he campaigned on."

Standing a few feet from Miles, Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, nodded agreement. "The governor should be here," she said. "He promised to address this situation when he ran. After he gets in, nothing.

"Now they say they're going to move people here from other facilities? What facilities do they have that are overstaffed and can afford to shift people out? Nowhere. Because all this governor has done for juvenile services is reduce staff and cut services."

Last week, Ehrlich said, "This is our responsibility, and we are not into excuse-making."

But those are just words, and they sound utterly empty. The words we heard two years ago from Ehrlich were all about looking at troubled kids, most of them lacking a stable home life, who are made increasingly dangerous by a criminal justice system that is supposed to offer guidance and protection.

It has failed them for years and years. This governor promised to change that. Now, we are told, he didn't even know about it.

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