Plans for youths challenged

Attorneys question sending juveniles at Hickey to other states


The Maryland public defender's office is asking the courts to block the state from placing two delinquent youths in reform schools in distant states - the first in what is likely to become a string of similar legal battles.

Attorney Jay Ortis said yesterday that he will seek an injunction to force the state to return 18-year-old Phillip Koromah from Iowa, where Koromah was flown last week against his grandmother's wishes and over his lawyer's objections.

And in Baltimore County, assistant public defender Lina Ayers has filed papers to stop the state from sending a 16-year-old boy from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School to a program in Shelby, Ohio.

"We have filed for a stay and a motion for emergency review, which was granted," Ayers said.

As those cases unfold, the state's top public defender, Nancy S. Forster, said she is sending social workers to out-of-state programs to investigate whether they are suitable for Maryland youth.

"If we don't think that the placement is appropriate, yes, we will challenge it and do everything that we can to see that our client is not sent there," Forster said.

State juvenile services officials have said about 24 youths are likely to be sent to other states by the end of this month because of the governor's decision to close most of the much-criticized Hickey school by Nov. 30. Officials haven't projected how many youths might be sent out of state after that.

The closing will eliminate a 144-bed, secure residential program that has housed some of Maryland's toughest juvenile offenders. State officials have said that some youths who would have gone to Hickey can receive services at home or in their community but that the most difficult will have to be sent to other states until new programs can be developed here.

The plan to send juvenile offenders as far away as Minnesota and Texas has ignited a firestorm of protest. Some advocates, legislators and judges say that separating youths from their families and sending them hundreds of miles from home is harmful.

"We are very concerned about sending youths out of state," said Sharon Rubinstein of Advocates for Children and Youth. "It flies in the face of the policies we support ... which is keeping kids close to home and in contact with their families and the community."

By law, state officials have to meet a standard before they can send a juvenile offender out of state. The law requires a finding that "equivalent facilities for the juvenile are not available in the state of Maryland; and institutional care in the other jurisdiction is in the best interests of the juvenile and will not pose an undue hardship."

Advocates and others say they don't understand why the state is sending some youths with relatively minor offenses to costly programs in other states.

Ayers said that her client was arrested for marijuana possession in 2002 and that, two years later, his mother turned him in for violating his probation when she found him smoking pot in the house, against her rules.

The boy spent nearly a year in a residential treatment facility but did not adjust well and has been at Hickey since March, the lawyer said.

"His mother said that she loves him very much, doesn't want him to be where he is and absolutely doesn't want him to be in Ohio," Ayers said.

Ayers said the boy's offenses don't warrant sending him out of state. "He's not a kid who's had a felony robbery, a breaking and entering, a carjacking or any of those kinds of offenses," she said.

Similarly, Ortis said Koromah's run-ins with the law have been for relatively minor offenses. Koromah, who could remain under the state's control until age 21, needs mental health treatment services that should be provided in Maryland, he said.

Forster said her office isn't sure that the programs where the state proposes to send youths offer appropriate services. To get more information, she said that social workers from her office will fly to Iowa and northern Minnesota in the next two weeks and that another will visit a program outside Pittsburgh.

"We have to make sure that the program is what it says it is, and we need to know whether the facilities are well kept - everything you would want the facility to be," Forster said. "We don't want to find out later that it's Hickey all over again."

Hickey has long been named by advocates and regulators as an unsafe place with inadequate, ineffective treatment.

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