Justice Department launches investigation into city's juvenile jail

Probe to focus on staffing, claims of mistreatment

July 30, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation into claims of mistreatment of youths, inadequate staffing and other problems at the state's newest juvenile justice facility, The Sun has learned.

Federal authorities are examining complaints that educational and other programs at the state-run Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center are lacking, and that youths have been improperly held in seclusion for lengthy periods as punishment, according to two sources familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Department of Juvenile Services spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards confirmed that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has notified state officials that investigators plan to visit the facility on North Gay Street over five to six days in September to conduct a review.

"What we're saying is that it's not an investigation," Edwards said. "It's really just about them coming in and seeing what they can do to help us make the facility better."

Eric Holland, a Justice Department spokesman, said he could not comment on what led the federal agency to focus attention on the Juvenile Justice Center because "it's an open investigation."

The review will be led by the department's Office of Special Litigation, the unit that issued a scathing report in April 2004 about conditions it found at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

The number of youths at Cheltenham has been scaled back sharply since the report was issued, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. recently announced plans to close most of Hickey by Nov. 30.

At the same time he announced the Hickey closing, the governor signed an agreement to resolve a civil complaint the Justice Department filed in which it ordered a series of changes to improve conditions at Cheltenham and Hickey.

The Juvenile Justice Center has had a rocky history since opening in October 2003 after two years of construction delays. With its soaring glass atrium, attractive offices and courtrooms, and 144 beds, the new center was billed as a significant step toward reforming a troubled system. The facility houses teenage boys who have been arrested in Baltimore and are awaiting trial on charges such as theft, drug dealing and assault.

Less than a year after it opened, the center's first director, Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, resigned to protest chronic understaffing that she said posed a threat to the safety of youths and staff.

Hildreth's departure was followed three months later by a blistering report by an independent monitor working for the state.

The report portrayed an institution in chaos - with youths attacking each other and workers, setting fires, climbing walls to escape and attempting suicide. The monitor reported that some clergy and defense lawyers were afraid to enter the facility.

Meanwhile, the state public defender filed a petition with the courts to force the state to make immediate improvements at the center or shut it down.

The state hired additional staff and made other improvements, but problems persist.

The independent monitor's report for the period from Jan. 1 through March 31, the most recent available, noted sharp increases in "youth on youth assaults and use of force incidents" there.

The monitor also said that seclusion has been used illegally as punishment and that "youth have been kept in seclusion for lengthy periods of time." He also raised concerns that nurses were not reporting suspected instances of child abuse to the appropriate authorities.

"Programming and education are still insufficient," the monitor found. "Youths are not always receiving the required number of hours for education and ... effective after-school and weekend programming is virtually non-existent at times."

Edwards said that the Department of Juvenile Services "has gone to great lengths to make sure that the facility is running properly" and has beefed up staff and training.

Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a longtime youth advocate and a critic of the state Department of Juvenile Services, said it appears that federal officials are looking for evidence of the same kind of "systemic pattern of abuse and neglect" that they found at Hickey and Cheltenham.

She said the fact that the Justice Department finds it necessary to return to Maryland to examine another juvenile facility almost immediately after the settlement over Hickey and Cheltenham calls into question the state's claims of working diligently to reform the system.

"The detention facility on Gay Street was opened under the Ehrlich administration and within a very short period of time has been plagued by the same kind of problems we've seen at Cheltenham and Hickey," Gurian-Sherman said.

She said that "it once again proves these problems are not facility specific, but are systemic to every facility run by the Department of Juvenile Services."

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