Plans to close Hickey school questioned

Critics of proposal voice concern for public safety

July 13, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Several state legislators and the Baltimore County executive questioned yesterday the Ehrlich administration's surprise plan to close the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, saying the move poses a potential threat to public safety if the youths are sent home or moved into less-restrictive group homes.

"They have no plan whatsoever for what's going to happen to these kids," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Zirkin commented after a briefing for the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis yesterday on the administration's plans to shut down most of the Baltimore County facility by Nov. 30.

The portion of the school being closed is a 130-bed long-term residential program for youths who have been committed by the courts.

A 72-bed detention center at Hickey will remain open until a new juvenile jail can be built at a different location. And a separate 26-bed program for sex offenders also will continue to operate there after Nov. 30.

Government regulators, legislators and advocates have long complained of unsafe conditions and ineffective rehabilitation at Hickey, which houses some of Maryland's toughest juvenile offenders.

Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. told legislators that closing Hickey makes sense. "No doubt it is a difficult undertaking, but it is the right thing to do," he said.

Montague spoke of dilapidated buildings and "a plethora of problems" at the facility, which was the subject of a scathing U.S. Justice Department report a year ago.

But Montague faced tough questions from Democratic lawmakers and county officials about the tight time schedule for the closing.

They asked about costs of moving youths from Hickey to out-of-state facilities, and suggested that the administration's plan to release some youths to less restrictive, privately run group homes or community-based programs, or to send them home, could pose a threat to public safety.

Several legislators said that they knew nothing of the governor's plans until he announced them at a news conference June 30.

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. voiced concerns about youths being moved from Hickey back to residential communities with inadequate services and little supervision.

"Just as we would not open the doors of the state prison, we cannot simply turn the most criminally troubled young people loose in the community," he said.

But Montague said public safety remains his agency's paramount concern and that violent offenders will be placed in secure facilities.

Montague said that only 16 of the 130 youths in Hickey's long-term residential program will need placement in secure facilities by Nov. 30. Others will have served their terms or are youths who have not committed violent crimes and can be safely placed elsewhere, he said.

Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor is confident about the plans and that "it would serve critics best to work with the administration and not against it to protect Maryland's juveniles."

Advocates for juveniles were supportive of the decision to close the facility, but cautioned that effective alternative programs and services will be needed for youths who are returned to community-based programs.

Jim McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families & Youth, an association of private service providers, was among advocates who lauded the plan.

"This is in fact the right thing to do, it's the right time to do it and it can work," McComb said.

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