Paper tigers

October 01, 2004

THE LATEST state monitor's report on conditions for children held in state custody is out and, surprise, it's still like a poorly run zoo in many facilities. When will this tide turn?

Violence continues at the Cheltenham Youth Facility and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, despite the decreasing inmate populations, according to the monitor's report, which covers April through June.

The number of reported assaults is up to nearly one a day at the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel. Staffers there let a young woman who already had been involved in 17 violent incidents use a curling iron on another girl; she burned the workers and other girls before they could restrain her. Then, according to the report, they placed her in solitary confinement - meant for extremely short stays until the immediate threat is past - for three days.

And at the jail in the city's Juvenile Justice Center, not yet a year old, staffers can't keep up with the graffiti, the violence, the suicide attempts, the escapes or the need for consistent schooling. Not surprising, since there were only enough staffers to safely care for 48 juveniles yet there were consistently more than double that number during those three months. Last month, the inmate population reached 115, according to the monitor's special report on the city center, released two weeks ago.

On the plus side, the state Department of Juvenile Services is replacing the windows with unbreakable glass as inmates break them, and gradually removing and replacing some of the beds, desks and showerheads that offer avenues for suicide attempts.

Why are DJS and the administration it reports to satisfied with ponderous incremental improvements - and some dismal failures - when they themselves declared the system in a state of emergency?

If it indeed is a priority, prove it. Here's how: Hire the staff to properly maintain the buildings and care for their wards. Pay a decent wage to teachers, wardens, food servers and counselors so they will stay for more than a year. Talk among yourselves about what has to happen in the legislature and during the budget process to get these kids what they need. Consider erring on the side of doing too much, trusting that the long-term savings - in kids' lives, reduced costs for jailing, mental health care, unemployment payments, emergency health care - will offset today's spending.

And don't forget to talk with your bosses - the people of Maryland. Responding to questions about the monitor's report on the jail at the city's Juvenile Justice Center, DJS Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said, "We're expanding resources for these children beyond what any of you know." Public agencies shouldn't keep their doings a secret. What's been revealed so far, by state-funded monitors, private providers, stalwart advocates and, especially, persistent parents, stinks.

If there are sweet spots, why hide them? This system needs all the help - and community good will - it can get.

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