Sweating the details

July 12, 2005

THE HOUSE Appropriations Committee and other invited legislators plan to grill state Department of Juvenile Services officials today on what will happen now that it is closing some of the confinement sections at its Charles H. Hickey Jr. School at the end of November. Legislators shouldn't focus just on where the money for alternatives will come from - though that is an excellent question - but should also ask how, exactly, DJS plans to make this drastic but welcome change work for the state's wayward children.

The money question is not easily answered. DJS will need to maintain much of this incorrigible holding tank - not saving much cash this year - while it works to expand programs to rehabilitate its wards in the community, in group homes and in locked facilities.

It is likely that two dozen of the most difficult kids now at Hickey will have to go to the highest-expense out-of-state placements, as will any more such delinquents who enter the system from now until in-state facilities are expanded. But DJS already has less money this year for those "per diem" placements; the shortfall is most of the estimated $20 million deficit built into DJS' fiscal 2006 budget.

At the same time, family intervention specialists, tutoring programs, group homes, doctors, dentists, drivers and all the other service providers the state plans to rely on aren't going to increase their offerings - and hire and spend months training staff - on rosy, vague talk alone.

And some of the good programs that could take Hickey's less violent wards, such as community conferencing and the Baltimore City juvenile drug court, lost funding or staffing in the past year. The state's capacity to provide intensive family services has declined 48 percent in the past 18 months through budget cuts and attrition, according to Advocates for Children and Youth.

While the Department of Juvenile Services says it can secure placements for all who will likely be left at Hickey on its close date, Nov. 30, it does not have a stellar record. It still hasn't solved the continuing problem of "pending placement" kids, those the court has assigned to treatment or other care but for whom the department hasn't yet found a spot. If it had enough capacity now, it wouldn't have any pending placement kids.

DJS has less than five months to make this work. It must tell legislators, its private partners and the public exactly how it will do so.

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