State halts plans to have private firm run Hickey School

September 24, 2004|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The state Department of Juvenile Services has scrapped plans to bring in a private contractor to run the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and instead plans to continue running the troubled facility itself.

The decision comes at a time when an independent monitor has sharply criticized the state's management of another juvenile facility in Baltimore City.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said the state needs to run Hickey for the next few years until it can be replaced or incorporated within a system of five small, regional youth facilities across Maryland.

"We are not going to go to a private contractor," Montague said in an interview.

A legislative mandate to reduce the number of youths housed at Hickey, about 170, to no more than 48 by 2007 made it impractical to try to find a private firm to run it, he said.

Hickey until last spring was run by a private contractor; the U.S. Justice Department said conditions were so bad that the facility violated the civil rights of youths held there.

Site improvements

Montague said Hickey is safer since the state took over operations April 1. The number of violent incidents -- particularly staff against youth -- has declined, he said.

"I think it's much better for the kids now," he said. "We've brought a different type of attitude toward them in terms of providing for their needs."

New educational and other programs at Hickey also have been launched, he said.

Hickey houses teenage boys who have been ordered there by judges as a result of offenses they committed, as well as juveniles who are being held after their arrests until they can appear for court hearings.

Montague said enough money was appropriated in this year's budget to meet staffing needs at Hickey.

The problem of inadequate staffing at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center -- highlighted this month in a report by an independent monitor -- is a different issue, he said.

Montague said his agency lacked the central office staff necessary to quickly process enough people to staff the city center at a time when new juvenile detention facilities were opening on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland and the state was taking control of Hickey.

He called the staffing shortage at the city center "an anomaly."

Legislation planned

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, who heads a legislative subcommittee that oversees juvenile services, said he believes conditions have improved at Hickey since the state took over in April -- although only marginally.

"It is better now than it was under a private provider that was not doing its job," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "But a little bit better than awful is just that -- a little bit better than awful. We're nowhere near where we need to be."

Zirkin said he plans to introduce legislation in next year's General Assembly session to "dismantle Hickey as we know it." The legislation would go further than the law passed this year and set a specific timetable for razing buildings there, he said. He has not decided what that timetable should be.

`Set up for failure'

The site is large enough that several 24- to 35-bed facilities could be built to house intensive treatment programs designed for youths with different kinds of problems, he said.

Zirkin said Hickey and other larger Maryland juvenile centers like the state-run Cheltenham in Prince George's County -- which was also criticized by the Justice Department -- are too big to effectively rehabilitate youths. "They are set up for failure," he said.

But some advocates say the only way to reform the system is to replace top administrative staff at the Department of Juvenile Services.

Leadership debate

Stacey Gurian-Sherman of the advocacy group JJ FAIR said yesterday that new leadership is more important than whether the state or a private contractor runs juvenile facilities.

"I absolutely think that Ken either needs to be fired or to show leadership that he so far has not shown ... to implement reform and not just talk about it," she said. "If you can't get a handle on kids being abused, then you should be fired."

But Zirkin defended Montague's performance.

"I don't think that there's anybody in the state who can do a better job than Ken Montague as secretary of juvenile services," Zirkin said. "There's nobody who cares more about these kids than Ken Montague."

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