Paying for Hickey

October 04, 2004

THE STATE'S DECISION to retain control of the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County should help the juveniles held there, but it's more bad news for the people who staff the facility.

Since the contract with provider Correctional Services Corp. ended in March, more than 250 people running the programs and working with the kids day and night have been reclassified as contract workers, not employees, for the state. They got a small boost in pay, but they lost all their benefits, including health care. For the diabetics, the chronic asthma sufferers and those who break a leg or whose children fall ill, medical bills can derail the family budget. Advocates say some staffers are going without their medicines.

For a juvenile justice system that often acts as a staff training ground for other states with higher pay scales, this adds insult to injury. Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services is having trouble getting enough employees to staff its dysfunctional downtown facility; the last thing it needs is even faster attrition at Hickey.

DJS predicts that eventually the workers will become state employees, but not necessarily anytime soon. The legislature or the Board of Public Works has to approve adding official state positions even if the money is already there to pay for them. So the change isn't likely to happen until after next year's legislative session.

That's too long. If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. can't get these workers basic coverage now -- via the Board of Public Works -- he should push to get them reassigned the first day of session.

Overall, the state's retention of the facility for boys is a good thing. It now cannot claim ignorance of abuses and problems, because there is no middleman. And it can more quickly revamp Hickey, now housing around 170 inmates, into separate facilities holding up to only 48, each with specific rehabilitation and treatment goals.

But success won't happen without the help and good will of those who work there. These people are doing the state's work; they deserve state benefits.

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