Where will our children go?

October 09, 2005

The "easy" kids are gone already from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School. The ones left now need more than regular check-ins, counseling or home-detention ankle bracelets. Where they will go when the facility for juvenile delinquents is officially closed Nov. 30 is anyone's guess. That's dangerous for the children and shameful for Maryland. The Department of Juvenile Services needs to spell out where and when these and all its children will be housed.

To be sure, some of those held behind the fence at Hickey will not be going anywhere soon. Besides the two dozen children accused of sex offenses who are being treated at a private facility on the campus, the Department of Juvenile Services also has two groups of state-supervised children there who will remain. One group is awaiting court dates; in September, those kids numbered some three dozen. The other group is made up of children for whom DJS has not yet found space in a suitable program; some of the current three dozen have waited weeks or months to start rehabilitation.

But the dozen or so children still assigned directly to Hickey on Nov. 30 must be sent somewhere else when the "maximum-secure" dorms close. They cannot stay in Maryland because Hickey is the only such facility in the state. But as The Sun's Greg Garland reported last week, of the nine out-of-state options DJS has identified, only two are locked, secure facilities intended for these kinds of kids - and one of them is full, indefinitely. The department already sends about 60 children out of state for care.

Even in the best of circumstances, DJS says, it has difficulty getting private providers in and out of state to accept some delinquent children, especially those with multiple troubles - mental problems, addictions, learning and physical disabilities, violent or antisocial behavior or felony-level charges against them. Sadly, the majority of the state's most serious delinquents have multiple problems. The difficulties will only increase when DJS must add the toughest Hickey children - and the constant trickle of those assigned to top-secure facilities by the courts each week - to those still awaiting placement.

It is not in the best interest of most children to send them so far away from home. They have to go home to finish up rehabilitation in any case; severing all ties can wreck fragile families, set the children back another year at school and make them strangers in their own neighborhoods.

DJS has just started talking with private firms about building a locked facility in Maryland. That's a good idea, but it doesn't help the current crop of children, or the ones coming through the system in the near future. The department and the administration need to commit the time and the funding to speedily remedy the hole they have created.

These kids need help here, now - not vague promises for the future and a ticket out of town.

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