Federal investigators to visit juvenile jail

Officials will begin probe of complaints that youths were mistreated at facility

September 06, 2005|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A team of federal investigators is scheduled to visit the state-run juvenile jail in Baltimore today to examine complaints of youths being mistreated, inadequate staffing and other problems at the North Gay Street facility.

Advocates for youths and public defense lawyers have said that educational and other programs at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center are lacking and that some youths have been improperly held in seclusion for lengthy periods.

Investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division are expected to look into those allegations during visits over the next two months.

LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said the agency "is cooperating fully" with the investigation.

"We anticipate that the meetings will go extremely well and that the outcome will be positive," Edwards said.

The 144-bed detention center has had a troubled history since opening in October 2003 to house teenage boys from Baltimore as they await trial on charges such as theft, drug dealing and assault.

The facility's first director, Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, resigned less than a year after the center opened to protest chronic understaffing that she said threatened the safety of youths and staff.

Last September, a blistering report by an independent monitor described an institution that was in such chaos that some clergy and defense lawyers were afraid to enter the facility.

Edwards said conditions have changed since then.

"The department has made significant improvements not just recently, but over the last year at this facility," she said.

State officials were notified in July that the Justice Department wanted to visit the detention center this month to look into complaints. The federal notice spurred extra efforts to spruce up the detention center, increase staffing levels and make other improvements to the facility, according to workers there.

The detention center's managers met Thursday with the staff go over in detail how the federal investigation will proceed.

Employees were told that investigators would be on site for nine days over three weeks in September and October, according to a detention center worker who attended the meeting.

The worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from supervisors, said staff members were told that each visit would examine different aspects of the facility's operations.

Points of review

For example, investigators plan to review environmental, medical and fire safety issues today through Thursday, according to the agenda for last week's staff meeting.

Later this month, investigators will turn their attention to how educational programs are run, the seclusion of youths and the activities offered for youths. The focus of the last visit, in October, will be mental health issues.

The assistant state attorney general who advises the juvenile services agency told staff members at last week's meeting to give honest answers to direct questions but not to volunteer any additional information, according to the detention worker.

Those instructions outraged Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who heads an advocacy group for the families of young offenders. She said the agency should be encouraging staff to provide extensive, detailed information to investigators instead of trying to "hide and cover up" problems at the facility.

"If there are problems, let's do the honest thing for a change in Maryland and admit there are problems and take care of them," said Gurian-Sherman, director of the group JJ FAIR, or Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources.

Standard legal advice

A spokeswoman for Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said the lawyer who spoke to the detention center staff gave standard legal advice.

"We always advise clients to answer honestly and completely and to answer questions that are asked of them," said Jamie St. Onge, the spokeswoman.

The Justice Department investigation comes at a time of transition for the state juvenile services agency.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced in June that most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County will close in November.

Some of the youths are being diverted to group homes and other community-based treatment programs. Those considered the highest risk to public safety are to be sent to secure, locked juvenile treatment facilities in other states.

2004 report

The Justice Department had issued a scathing report last year about conditions at Hickey and at Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

The number of youths at Cheltenham has been scaled back sharply since then. With Hickey's scheduled closing, Ehrlich resolved a civil complaint that the Justice Department had filed ordering a series of improvements to that facility.

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