Judges fault Hickey closing

Two tell legislators state lacks plan for placing youths


Two Maryland judges said yesterday that the Ehrlich administration's decision to close the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School without a clear plan to replace it is jeopardizing the welfare of youths and putting public safety at risk.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox and Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Pamela North told legislators that with Hickey preparing to close, there are not enough places to send tough young offenders who need to be removed from their homes to protect their safety and the community.

"We perceive that the push is to put [youths] in the community that we don't think are appropriate," Cox said.

The sharp criticism came as the Department of Juvenile Services for the first time identified nine facilities in other states where it intends to send some youths who would have gone to Hickey, the prison-like facility where advocates, lawmakers and government inspectors have long complained of poor conditions.

The department said some Maryland youths will be sent to programs in Texas, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio with rates ranging from $47,450 to $116,800 per child per year.

The list includes three facilities run by a for-profit Texas-based company that, according to published reports, was forced to close one of its centers amid complaints of abuse.

Under pressure from Pennsylvania authorities, a company operating as Cornell Abraxas closed its New Morgan Academy near Reading in 2002 after about a dozen children were sexually assaulted by adults over the span of less than two years, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The same company runs programs that the Department of Juveniles Services plans to use in Shelby, Ohio; Marienville, Pa.; and South Mountain, Pa., according to a list provided to legislators yesterday.

Another facility on the list has had a more recent, but less severe, incident of violence. The Summit Academy reform school in Herman, Pa., has said that four workers were fired in July over a June 18 incident in which a 17-year-old male student suffered cuts to his face and ear.

Facilities investigated

LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said agency officials thoroughly investigated the out-of-state programs before approving them.

"We feel comfortable with their ability to treat our children," she said. "It's almost impossible to find a provider or program around the country that has not had some kind of incident."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced June 30 that the 144-bed secure program at Hickey in Baltimore County, which serves the state's toughest juvenile offenders, will be shut down by Nov. 30.

Officials said some juveniles can be served by existing programs in Maryland but others would have to be sent out of state temporarily until Maryland could find private providers interested in developing new alternatives here.

Department administrators were not able yesterday to provide estimates of how many youths might be sent out of state during the next year. They said that they expect about 25 to be transferred within the next two months.

Assistant Secretary Delmas Wood said it is hard to project a number because it depends on how soon a new in-state facility can be developed that can handle youths who require a secure, locked program.

The judges told a workgroup of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis that out-of-state placements are a step backward for Maryland, which more than a decade ago had sent hundreds of juvenile offenders to out-of-state programs.

Cox said there is "no meaningful opportunity for family to be involved with rehabilitation" of youths when they are transported far away from home.

The judge also said she was concerned about the elimination of the "Impact" program at Hickey -- a short-term residential program for youths who have not done well in community-based programs.

Plan, or no plan

Much of the discussion at yesterday's hearing revolved around the lack of a firm plan for dealing with the Hickey population when it closes.

But Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. told legislators that his agency does have a plan and said the judges don't understand some of what the department is trying to do.

"There was a plan and is a plan for closing Hickey," Montague said. "Any child who comes to court and needs secure placement, we will find a secure placement for that child."

He said the judges appeared to want to "preserve the status quo" rather than move toward more community-based services for youths.

The Ehrlich administration decided to close Hickey, he said, because it had become "a dangerous place for kids" over the years.

But Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who chaired the meeting, pointed to the criticism she had just heard from the two judges and from a juvenile court master.

"They say that they do not know where they are going to be placing youths," she told Montague, noting that all three have many years of experience working within the juvenile system.

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