Restore the juvenile minders

December 14, 2005

Despite assurances to the contrary, the office that monitors conditions in state Department of Juvenile Services facilities is a shadow of its former self, in size and authority. When it reconvenes next month, the General Assembly must restore the presence and the power of the office of the independent juvenile justice monitor by overriding Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a bill to house it in the attorney general's office.

In its scramble to re-create its Office of Children, Youth and Families, whose charter expired this year, the administration said it would keep intact - and autonomous - the monitors' department, the only independent group that is allowed regular access to juvenile facilities. But the department is down to three workers from seven and has had no boss since July, when the change took place. Its quarterly reports are no longer accessible via the Web and are hard to get from officials; it no longer is required to write an annual report of conditions at youth facilities.

Legislators, despite some outcry over conditions at the juvenile lockups, also did not tour facilities over the summer. If it were not for the federal investigators still visiting the state's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and Cheltenham Youth Facility after finding "constitutional deficiencies" in the state's care, there would be no public oversight at all.

The ever-reforming DJS remains grievously troubled; its services to the children in its charge are inconsistent at best and dangerous at worst. The number of assaults and fights reported at Cheltenham, the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center and the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center's detention wing has remained high despite dropping population, according to a monitor's report from June. The Lower Eastern Shore Children's Center was among those overcrowded in May, which DJS said in the report was the exception. But it is still overcrowded and housing kids sent there all the way from the recently downsized Hickey. Some juvenile facilities still appear to be using solitary confinement as a punishment, despite federal censure and DJS rules that forbid it for that purpose.

The department does not appear to respond to internal pressure. The children and parents it serves are unlikely to speak out, fearing retribution. This is why the monitors' office was created, and why it must continue.

Maryland must ensure that these troubled children receive the care, education and rehabilitation they need; checking up on the department that's supposed to carry this out is part of the process.

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