Juvenile center in city soon to be fully staffed, chief says

Legislators concerned that state agency's fix is causing other problems

October 06, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Maryland Juvenile Services chief Kenneth C. Montague Jr. told lawmakers yesterday that the troubled Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center will be fully staffed before the end of next month.

House of Delegates Judiciary Committee members expressed skepticism about his promise, saying they worry that the agency is fixing staffing problems in one part of the system while creating them in others.

Montague told the legislators that 11 more staff members will be ready to start at the Baltimore center by Oct. 26. Enough staff for 96 children will be on board by Nov. 11, he said, and enough to handle a capacity population of 144 will be ready to start by Nov. 22.

He blamed the large understaffing and chaotic conditions described in an independent monitor's report on a lack of administrative resources.

Montague said that the agency could not process the applications, conduct background checks and evaluate employment tests fast enough to expand the staff in Baltimore at the same time that it converted the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County from private to public management.

"We were trying to address some very serious problems at the Hickey School. That was an emergency," he said. "Administratively, within our own executive staff, we did not have the personnel to do everything that was necessary."

Independent monitors found chronic violence among students at the Hickey School and an overwhelmed, poorly trained staff to deal with them. Amid the troubles, the state took control of the center in the spring and has committed to running it directly instead of through a private contractor.

While the state was addressing problems at Hickey, according to a report released last month, staffing levels at the new $60 million facility in Baltimore were only half of what they needed to be. The monitors reported children attacking each other, setting fires, attempting suicide and climbing walls in attempts to escape.

Montague said the department is trying to maintain a steady pool of job applicants who have passed many of the required background checks to help offset rapid turnover in the department, which is as much as 30 percent a year.

Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, said the juvenile justice system in Maryland is "an absolute disgrace" and that he is worried that Montague is merely trying to stamp out crises instead of solving problems.

"This is a shell game," Quinter said. "We're just moving the understaffing around."

Sharon Rubinstein of Advocates for Children and Youth said Montague's commitment to solving staffing problems and moving toward smaller facilities focused on treatment of mental health and substance abuse problems is laudable.

But, she said, he needs to be more specific in his plans for achieving those goals.

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, pressed Montague to seek more capital funding in next year's budget to establish small juvenile services centers so the state can eventually do away with problematic facilities like the Hickey School.

"I am really concerned that we are not moving in rapid enough fashion to these sort of facilities and instead are talking about understaffing in these way too big facilities," he said.

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