Some youths to be sent out of state when Hickey closes

Lack of details troubles lawmakers, advocates

August 15, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

More than a month after announcing that most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School would close by Nov. 30, the Ehrlich administration is still scrambling to find places to house and treat dozens of dangerous and deeply troubled juvenile offenders.

There are no other facilities in Maryland that can handle some of the youths Hickey has served, according to state Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. He said some will have to be sent to residential treatment programs in Pennsylvania and Virginia that his agency has used in the past. But others might be sent to more distant states, he said.

"There are a number of places we're looking at," Montague said. "There could be places in Indiana, and there's one we're looking at in Iowa."

Montague was unable to provide any estimate of how many Maryland youths are likely to be sent out of state or at what cost. He said out-of-state placements would be needed only for "deep end" youths who require the most intensive treatment services and who must be confined in locked facilities to protect the public.

Montague said the cost of placing youths out of state shouldn't be more than what Maryland has spent to keep them at Hickey. "It's about the same as service delivery within the state - between $60,000 and $70,000 per youth," he said.

Other youths who would have been sent to Hickey but are deemed less of a public-safety risk can be served by privately run treatment programs in Maryland, Montague said.

The lack of details troubles some legislators, advocates for juveniles, and community leaders. They say they fear some youths who pose a threat to the public will be placed into poorly supervised community programs and will receive inadequate or ineffective treatment.

Del. Bobby A. Zirkin said Department of Juvenile Services officials had few answers at a legislative hearing last month.

"They do not have a plan," said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "It's going to be a public-safety nightmare."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced June 30 that the 144-bed secure program at Hickey, which serves the state's toughest juvenile offenders, will be shut down by Nov. 30. A 26-bed program for sex offenders and a 72-bed short-term jail are to close later.

Hickey, near Carney in Baltimore County, has long been criticized as unsafe and ineffective. The U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report last year concluding that conditions violated the constitutional rights of its residents.

Many advocates for juveniles support shutting down Hickey but say the state needs to lay the groundwork first. "No one is saying closing Hickey is a bad thing, but if kids are going to be left in a worse position, it could be a nightmare instead of a godsend," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources, or JJ FAIR, an advocacy group for the families of young offenders.

The Ehrlich administration, Gurian-Sherman said, "decided to close Hickey before they had a plan for how to do it." She is concerned that Montague's agency may force private providers to accept youths who aren't suitable for their programs.

But others say they are hopeful that Hickey's closing signals the start of true reform of the state's chronically troubled juvenile justice system.

"I don't know how this will all work out, but I think the department right now is highly motivated to realign its services," said Jim McComb, who heads an association of private service providers. The state has hired "several smart people" in recent months to spearhead the reforms, he said.

"I'm more optimistic today than I've been in years," McComb said.

The youths that are sent to a 72-bed program in the most secure, locked portion of Hickey are hard-core cases that have had many past brushes with the law, officials say. They can be violent and have committed such crimes as assault, carjackings and armed robbery.

Dr. Andrea Weisman, the department's director of Behavior Health Services, provided a profile of the typical youth in that program based on a survey of 33 juveniles held there: The average age is 17, and 94 percent are African-American. The majority - 87 percent - live in Baltimore. And 54 percent come from families in which one or both parents have been in prison.

The youths had an average of 15 prior contacts with the Juvenile Services Department before being confined at Hickey. "All were considered an extreme risk to the community," Weisman said. These youths typically are ordered held for six to 18 months, depending on their crimes and past records.

As of Friday, this program at Hickey was full, with every available bed taken, according to juvenile services officials. Montague has said most of these youths will have completed their terms by Nov. 30 or could qualify for transfers to private residential programs in Maryland.

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