Plan for delinquents unclear

Critics say state lacks strategy weeks before Hickey School for youths is to close

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

With less than a month to go before the state closes most of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, critics say that the Department of Juvenile Services appears to have no final plan for what to do with the scores of young offenders who would have been sent there over the next year.

The department has said that, in the short term, it will send some of the youths to out-of-state programs as far away as Minnesota, Iowa and Texas. But those efforts are being challenged in court by child advocates who say it is harmful to separate young men from their families and send them so far away.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. told lawmakers last week that he hopes to establish a new 48-bed program here in coming months, but he could not offer details, such as where it would be or who would operate it.

"Time is running out. If they have a plan, where is it? What's the big secret?" said Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who serves as chairwoman of a legislative working group on juvenile services.

Department officials below Montague were stunned when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced in June that he had decided to shut down Hickey, said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, and the agency has been scrambling ever since, trying to figure out what to do with the current youths as well as future offenders.

"It's all well and good to close Hickey, but the key is, what do you do with the kids who commit similar offenses in the future?" said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "They don't have any place to send these kids."

But Montague said that his department will find appropriate placements for everyone, and that critics need to understand that it will take time to develop new and better programs as he works to reshape the agency.

"What we're looking for is to see if people can come up with and implement new approaches for kids who otherwise would go to Hickey," he said.

Montague said key administrators who needed to be involved with the plan to close Hickey knew of it well before it was announced. As for the criticisms of how Hickey's closing is being handled, he said: "People always have problems with change."

The prison-like Hickey has housed some of the state's most dangerous juvenile offenders, including youths who have committed attempted murder, carjacking, armed robbery and assault. Advocates, lawmakers and government inspectors have long criticized the reform school as unsafe and ineffective.

Zirkin and other advocates for children say they agree that the dilapidated center should be closed but question the way the Ehrlich administration has gone about it. Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch, the city's chief juvenile judge, said the decision to close Hickey by Nov. 30 appeared to have been made "precipitously."

Although the population has been much higher in past years, officials clarified last week that Hickey has more recently housed 72 youths whom the courts have sent there for long-term placement in the secure, locked facility. They are kept behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire.

Another 72 beds at Hickey are for youths in short-term detention - in effect, jailed while they await court hearings. Those beds are to be used indefinitely until a new juvenile detention center can be built at a site that has yet to be identified.

Most of the teenage boys ordered to serve time at Hickey have extensive juvenile records, officials say.

Dr. Andrea Weisman, the department's director of Behavior Health Services, studied youths in Hickey's secure program to develop a profile. Typically, they were 17-year-old African-Americans from Baltimore with an average of 15 prior contacts with the juvenile system. Just under half came from families in which one or both parents were in prison.

"All were considered an extreme risk to the community," Weisman told a group of private-sector service providers recently.

Department of Juvenile Services officials say that some of the youths who might have gone to Hickey can be served in other programs in Maryland, while less-dangerous offenders can even stay at home with services.

Zirkin says that in the interests of public safety and of rehabilitating such "deep end" youths, Maryland needs to have enough beds in residential facilities that offer effective treatment programs.

He said that a 48-bed program is not enough, and that a string of residential facilities is needed in each region of the state, modeled along the lines of a juvenile services program in Missouri that has succeeded in putting youths back on the right track.

In Missouri's program, trained youth counselors work intensively with groups of typically 10 to 12 youths. The state-run facilities are mostly on open campuses, secured by the staff.

Zirkin said he is determined to see such a program pursued in Maryland.

"It's clear that this administration doesn't know what it's doing," he said. "We're counting down the days until the legislature is back in session and we can set this right."

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