At last

July 01, 2005

FIVE MORE MONTHS, and the current Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents will be no more, promises Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. It's high time.

Backers and critics of the holding tank for wayward young men have called for its reform from at least as early as 1967; stories of ill-used wards and overbearing staff started with its first iteration, as the House of Refuge in 1850, and continue. At this point, with most of its buildings beyond dilapidated and haunted by mold, the only reasonable physical reform is destruction.

It also is a big step toward systemic reform. Maryland has been rightly headed toward a system of small and midsize facilities offering solace, rehabilitation and security to its wards and to their communities for decades. Though the progress has been discouragingly slow, it has been measurable, especially in reducing the state's giant juvenile warehouses.

The Montrose Training School closed in 1988; Victor Cullen Academy was downsized in 2001; the Cheltenham Youth Facility did the same last year; now Hickey will by year's end. (The one giant step backward size-wise: The detention wing at Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, already a dinosaur when it opened in late 2003, can house up to 144 children, though the Department of Juvenile Services aims for fewer than 100.)

At Hickey, DJS plans to close its commitment and rehabilitation programs for those the court has found delinquent. The department will continue to house juveniles awaiting their court hearings on the campus and eventually -- as speedily as possible, please -- build new facilities to house them. A separate, privately contracted program for juvenile sex offenders, also housed behind the razor-wire fences but in habitable buildings, will remain.

Which brings us to the big caveat in this rosy reform scenario: Who will be taking care of the kids moved out of Hickey, some the worst of a rock-hard bunch? The department plans to rely on contractors -- firms and nonprofit groups -- to fill some pretty tough needs. There are few, if any, facilities in the state that can offer the access to schooling, counseling, medical and personal care and continuous oversight that would keep a teenage fire-setter with impulse-control problems, say, and the surrounding community safe.

And how will the state ensure that all these smaller facilities are keeping their promises? After all, juvenile justice monitors pointed out the ills at Hickey in report after report, year after year, to no avail.

Service contracts must include required, unannounced monitoring -- and sanctions for those who fail to fulfill their promises. They should include "no reject" clauses, which require the facility to accept all children who meet its guidelines. Few contracts have either; all must be renegotiated to reflect the state's insistence on good results, best practices and compassion for these juveniles and the communities that will house them.

It is heartening news that juveniles in the state's care may not have to wait for the completion of DJS' master plan -- or the various dates set by state law -- to get the decent treatment and services they need.

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