Doubts about youth centers

Security is questioned at out-of-state facilities that Md. might use for juvenile offenders

October 06, 2005|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Of the nine out-of-state programs Maryland plans to use for its toughest juvenile offenders when it closes the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, only two are locked, highly secure facilities aimed at such youths - and one of them is already full for the next year, a review by The Sun has found.

The Department of Juvenile Services has said the programs in other states would temporarily provide a secure setting for hardened, sometimes violent juvenile offenders until Maryland can develop such centers here.

A key legislator and a juvenile judge said yesterday that they were surprised and disturbed to learn that the department has chosen mostly programs with open campuses.

"It looks to me like they simply provided us with a list of a bunch of random facilities out of state to make it look like they had some plan," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "They seem to be making it up as they go along."

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Kathleen Cox said youths with extensive criminal histories often need to be held in highly secure facilities for their safety and to protect the public.

She said she would not be comfortable sending such youths to unlocked programs.

"We wouldn't do it in the state, so why on earth would we be doing it out of state?" Cox said.

But Delmas Wood, an assistant secretary of juvenile services, said state officials believe that the programs can safely and successfully handle most Hickey youths without keeping them behind fences and locked doors.

"We felt that these were appropriate types of places," Wood said. "They said, `Yeah, we can take this kid; we can program for this kid.'"

He said the unlocked programs are classified as "staff secure," meaning they rely on staff to ensure residents don't flee.

Last week, Juvenile Services officials released a list of nine juvenile facilities in other states where the agency said it will send some of its most difficult young offenders when the 144-bed secure program at Hickey is closed next month.

Hickey houses youths who have committed offenses such as attempted murder, carjacking, armed robbery and assault.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced June 30 that he had decided to close Hickey, a prison-like facility that advocates, lawmakers and government inspectors have long criticized as unsafe and ineffective.

Officials said that some youths will be placed in other programs in Maryland and that others will be allowed to live at home with supervision and services. But they said some of the toughest young offenders will have to be sent out of state - at a cost of $47,000 to $97,000 per youth per year - until private providers can be found to develop secure programs here.

Some critics have said they don't believe enough planning went into the decision to close Hickey.

Locked programs

Wood said the state will find a locked program for any youth that a judge orders into one. But a review by The Sun suggests that finding those beds could prove challenging.

One such program is on Maryland's list of nine - Cornerstone, near Lubbock, Texas. But officials there say the facility is full and has a long waiting list because Hurricane Rita knocked out a juvenile facility on the Gulf Coast.

"We're plum full," said Kara Plender, Cornerstone's director of business development. "We'll probably be full for at least a year."

Even if Cornerstone had openings, it is not clear that Hickey youths would have qualified for spots.

"We don't have real violent or aggressive kids," Plender said.

The only other program on the state's list that describes itself as having a highly secure, locked dorm is Mesabi Academy KidsPeace in northern Minnesota.

A spokesman said that although Maryland authorities have talked to officials there, no decisions have been made. He said Mesabi has about 10 beds available in the secure, locked portion of its program.

The director of one other facility, Southwest Indiana Regional Youth Village, says a portion of its residential treatment program is fenced, with motion sensors. The company's brochures describe it as a "staff secure" residential program.

Cox said that putting Hickey youths into programs with limited security could lead to disaster.

"They take off and run, which creates a risk to them and the communities they are in," she said.

But Wood said the programs the state chose have not had many runaways - an indication that staff members are vigilant and do a good job of screening youths.

"They are able to keep the kids there because of the quality of their staff and the program milieu, " Wood said.

"A fence detracts from the program."

Distance concerns

Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch said he is more concerned about how far away the programs are - and whether youths from poor, urban neighborhoods can thrive in them - than whether doors are locked. "This group of kids needs intense supervision, whether it's a staff-secured or physically secured facility," he said.

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