Secretary says Juvenile Services making progress

Montague defends agency after abuse reports, escape attempt at Hickey School

2 teens used scissors as weapon

April 01, 2005|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

In his first public remarks since reports this week of abuse at state-run juvenile detention facilities, Maryland's Juvenile Services secretary said yesterday that his agency is making steady progress in reforming the troubled system.

But at a news conference called to bring attention to improvements, Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. also was forced to address yet another security lapse - a near escape Wednesday from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in which two youths armed with scissors locked two staff members in a room.

"The heavy lifting for this department is occurring right now," Montague told reporters who gathered at Hickey for yesterday's event. "If this was easy, we would have no incidents at any time."

Montague - a former legislator whom Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. tapped to correct long-festering problems in Juvenile Services - was responding to mounting criticism that came after reports of abuse revealed by the state Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor.

The monitor said a guard at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville beat juveniles in the groin and encouraged fight clubs, while three youths at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center were kept in seclusion for five consecutive days, in violation of state law.

Montague said that despite such problems, overall his agency is moving forward, offering better mental health and drug addiction counseling in the detention centers and opening two new modern facilities in the past year.

Montague acknowledged the near escape from Hickey, which the state took over a year ago today from a private contractor. He said the scissors used to threaten guards had been taken from a classroom.

The department has been working with the Maryland State Department of Education to improve educational opportunities for incarcerated youth, and Montague said he was disappointed that they were apparently abusing educational opportunities.

"Not every student will take a positive approach to the opportunities provided," Montague said.

State police, who responded to a 911 call from the Baltimore County facility early Wednesday morning, said yesterday that the two youths threatened a male and female staff member who were watching their unit.

The juveniles took the staffers' radios and keys and locked the two in a room. The detainees then tried to escape over a fence.

When a female shift commander spotted the juveniles, she too was threatened with scissors, according to police.

The shift commander eventually convinced the youths that if they let her go she would give them a half-hour head start before calling authorities, according to a source with knowledge of the incident who requested anonymity for fear of being fired.

When she was released, she went to the gate house and asked guards to call 911. As an alert was being broadcast, the youths - who were still on the grounds - surrendered without incident and were placed in seclusion, police said.

The juveniles, Robert Venable, 17, and Damien Byers, 16, have been charged as adults with assault, possession of a deadly weapon with the intent to do bodily harm and attempted escape.

Montague, who had sharply criticized the previous operators of Hickey for failing to repair broken locks, said yesterday that the center still has a problem with broken locks. He could not say how many locks are currently broken or whether a broken lock had played a role in the escape attempt.

"We are doing an assessment to determine how many locks are not functioning properly," Montague said.

In the past year new locks have been installed but some of them may be not working correctly or may have been disabled or broken by youths, a department spokeswoman said.

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