Oft-criticized youth facility to be closed

Hickey School houses worst juvenile offenders

Violence, abuse by staff, escapes

Governor says inmates to be moved or released

July 01, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The state will close the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the prison-like youth facility in Baltimore County where advocates, lawmakers and government inspectors have long complained of unsafe conditions and ineffective rehabilitation of Maryland's toughest juvenile offenders, the governor announced yesterday.

Most of the school will close Nov. 30, when youths in the 130-bed long-term residential program are transferred to smaller, private programs or sent home for services in their communities. The 72-bed short-term detention center will stay open until the state can build a new juvenile jail.

"It was intolerable. You talk about a violation of constitutional rights - it was a living model in what a system should not become," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said. "I know the fear, the trepidation, the lack of trust in the community that has surrounded the Hickey School for decades. ... Hickey will be history."

The decision to close the nearly 100-year-old facility comes a year after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report concluding that conditions at Hickey violated the constitutional rights of youths housed there. Advocates cheered the plan to shut it down but questioned whether the state has an adequate plan to care for its residents.

"Simply putting them back in the community is a public safety nightmare if they don't have proper oversight," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Ehrlich, a Republican, made juvenile justice reform a major part of his election campaign in 2002, blaming the previous administration for insufficient reforms. But problems in the youth centers have continued during the first three years of his term, including escapes, chronic understaffing and hazing and abuse by guards.

This week the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor - the state's watchdog for youth facilities - reported an increase in abuse by staff members, several suicide attempts, escapes and other problems at Hickey.

Although the governor acknowledged that many previous reform efforts have failed, he expressed confidence yesterday that his administration has set the system on the right track.

"Today's bottom line is a different direction, a direction that has been a long-term policy goal of this administration," Ehrlich said. "We want services available to make sure that when they leave this system they leave with the education and skills to make sure they do not re-offend."

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat whose committee is holding hearings on the regulation of group homes, said Ehrlich's plan is questionable, given flaws documented in similar facilities, such as unqualified staff and unregulated spending on executive salaries and perks rather than care.

"Until he improves this piece, he's making the possibility of getting the lives of these children squared that much more difficult," Currie said.

Although the governor vetoed a bill this year that would have extended scrutiny by the monitor's office to private facilities, Ehrlich insisted that they will be properly supervised.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said some children are already well served in similar settings. "We have a number of service providers who are very clever and capable of handling the range of kids we serve," he said.

U.S. Justice Department officials said yesterday that they were ending a three-year investigation of the state, having come to an agreement with the Ehrlich administration for reforms at Maryland's youth facilities.

Bradley J. Schlozman, acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, said state officials have agreed to improvements including better suicide prevention programs, medical and mental health care, fire safety and special education.

According to the agreement, jointly selected monitors will report on the state's progress and will be given access to the facilities, youths and staffs. The monitoring will continue for three years but can be lifted by the Justice Department after 18 months if the state demonstrates substantial compliance.

The closure of Hickey was not a requirement of the agreement, Schlozman said.

Stacey Gurrian-Sherman, director of the Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative & Resources, said the settlement doesn't mean the state is off the hook. On the contrary, it gives the federal government much greater authority to investigate the facilities and hold Maryland accountable if the current problems aren't fixed.

"My guess is that unless the governor really understands that this means serious business and that we need to clean house in [the Department of Juvenile Services], this settlement is nothing more than a ticking time bomb and we will be facing a federal lawsuit," Gurrian-Sherman said.

Yesterday's announcement included few details about the new detention facility that will replace the part of the Hickey School that now houses children waiting for their court hearings or, after such hearings, for placement elsewhere.

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