Back to basics

February 23, 2006

Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services is seeking a nearly 20 percent budget increase for the next fiscal year so that it can continue to implement some systemic changes and enhance some core services that suffered from serious underfunding in the last year. The state Senate and House seem to be raising some minor money quibbles, but the larger question is how well the department is meeting the legislature's recommendation to create a regional system that relies on smaller, community-based facilities.

Much of the additional $35 million that the department is seeking for fiscal year 2007 would allow it to go back to basics: taking care of the infrastructure, as well as restoring some key services, such as proper health evaluations of some youths in detention, that fell off the radar screen when the 2006 budget came up short. The proposed budget aims to be more aligned with the department's short- and long-term goals.

After a report last year that tried to identify gaps in juvenile services and how to fix them, DJS issued a second report last month that outlines a master blueprint of new and renovated facilities designed to serve youths better. Under the most recent plan, the department would create more shelter or residential spaces that would allow more youths to be placed in settings closer to their families and field staff. Most of the facilities would have fewer than 50 beds, but only a couple would accommodate as few as a dozen youths, which is closer to an ideal number. Many youth advocates rightly point out that the department spends too much money on expensive congregate care and similar services when a lot of youths would do better in smaller settings, with more individualized attention that is focused on rehabilitation.

In addition, the plan contemplates a new facility in Baltimore County to replace the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, which was largely closed last year. But it's unclear where the new building would go. The uncertainty points to the continuing gap between the department's aim and its reach. While there are a lot of plans on the drawing board, the state's detention facilities are overcrowded, with too many youths waiting for placement, and some being sent out of state for lack of appropriate facilities here.

While the department continues to make slow progress toward the goal of smaller, community-based facilities, can DJS make the goal a reality? And how long will it take?

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