Juvenile center announces improvements

Youth advocates say progress is being made

December 18, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Maryland's head of juvenile services said yesterday that new leadership is turning around the state's troubled juvenile jail in Baltimore, which independent monitors described three months ago as rife with chaos and violence.

Since the monitors issued a September report detailing chronic understaffing and dangerous conditions, the state has recruited experienced managers from out of state to restore order and improve mental health services at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, said Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr.

The state has improved its staffing ratios by speeding its hiring and increasing its efforts to supervise troubled children in the community instead of sending them to the year-old facility on Gay Street, he said.

"We've made significant progress. We seem to be on the right track in terms of satisfying the needs this facility ought to meet," Montague said while offering a tour of the center yesterday to reporters and advocates, part of a promise he made to keep the public informed of changes there.

When the monitors made their report, the center held 106 youths but had only 64 staff members, enough to handle about 48 children.

Yesterday the number of children being held was down to 81 and staff was up to 114, said LaWanda Edwards, a department spokeswoman.

The state also has boosted its mental and behavioral health staff, which now numbers 25, and is embarking on an effort to rehabilitate the youths sent there by working with their families and communities.

Advocates who watch the state's juvenile justice system said they see real changes being made - including in the center's focus. Although they aren't ready to declare its problems solved, they said the new leadership seems to have the right ideas.

"Major changes are occurring now," said Mark I. Soler, president of the Washington-based Youth Law Center. "It's completely different from the way DJS has run in the past."

While Montague toured the building, the children were in classes, working on computers and solving math problems. Others sat calmly in a recreation room playing video games. None appeared unruly or ill-behaved.

Montague was joined by two deputy secretaries and the directors of detention and behavioral health services at the center, all of whom have come on board since October.

One of them, Stephen T. Moyer, the new deputy secretary of administration, has worked in the department before. He came back to Juvenile Services from the state police and has been charged with streamlining the hiring process and improving coordination with other state agencies, which conduct some of the 17 background checks new employees must pass and provide services to youth in the system.

The other three new employees come from outside the system. Two of them, Carl V. Sanniti, the deputy secretary of residential operations, and Rodney Pegram, director of detention at the Baltimore center, are veteran juvenile services administrators who most recently worked together in Atlanta. Since arriving in Maryland, they've worked to make changes, large and small, at the center in an effort to increase safety and discipline.

Critics of juvenile justice system have complained that the building was poorly designed, leaving blind spots that security cameras can't see, making communication among staff members difficult and creating risks for children and staff alike. Sanniti and Pegram said they're doing the best they can to mitigate the risks.

The staff now has walkie-talkies, and 75 more security cameras are on the way.

Officials have grouped the youths according to their behavior and given extra perks to those who obey the rules. They've changed the schedule so that children walking through the hall don't pass other groups, eliminating the chance for pushing and shoving.

"What you're seeing now is the beginning of the beginning," Sanniti said.

Advocates for Children and Youth spokeswoman Sharon Rubinstein said she sees a real change in Maryland's juvenile services but worries that it's uneven through the youth centers around the state.

"The Baltimore City juvenile detention center has gotten an extra infusion of attention and energy, but it's not the only facility in the state," she said. "It's always good to see progress, but we shouldn't be distracted from the long road ahead."

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