Most-troubled kids languish in youth jails

In Md., backlog of juveniles awaiting placement builds

March 14, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Maryland's juvenile jails are housing kids who aren't supposed to be there - dozens of young offenders with severe mental or emotional problems waiting for state officials to find them a bed in a residential treatment program.

Department of Juvenile Services records show that as of late January, 63 youths had been jailed six weeks or longer while waiting for a placement - nearly twice the number of a year ago. The jails, formally known as detention centers, are supposed to be used only for short-term stays until a youngster accused of a crime can have his case decided in juvenile court.

The growing backlog is the result, in part, of the state's decision to close much of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School without developing programs to replace it, according to legislative analysts and advocates for children.

The youths languishing the longest in jail are those most in need of help, state juvenile service officials acknowledge. Many have been traumatized from years of abuse or neglect and the kinds of life experiences that can come with growing up poor: a parent jailed or lost to drugs; a friend or sibling killed on the streets; frequent moves to stay with different relatives or foster families.

Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Services, said such youths are harder to place because they can have deep psychological and emotional problems, along with learning disabilities, low IQs or aggressive behavior that makes them difficult to manage.

"They are mainly youths with severe mental health issues ... waiting for in-state or out-of-state residential treatment center beds to open," Hopkins said, describing the young offenders waiting six weeks or more for placement.

At a residential treatment center or in other therapeutic programs, these youths would have greater access to psychiatric care, intensive counseling and an array of other services in a highly structured environment - services that are far more limited at the state's often crowded and understaffed juvenile detention centers.

"These are kids who are the sickest," said Susan Leviton, who runs the children's law center for the University of Maryland School of Law. "They are getting worse because they don't get [appropriate] services while they are waiting."

Juvenile services officials say youths do get some mental health services and psychiatric attention while at detention centers but, they concede, not nearly at the same high level as residential treatment centers.

Hopkins said youths are waiting so long for placement because the treatment centers - most of them privately run - refuse to take some of the youths that his agency refers to them. Other centers, he said, have no room.

But private providers fault the state. They say the Department of Juvenile Services refers kids who aren't quite sick enough for their centers or might be unsuitable because they pose a threat to other youths or have a history of running away. The providers say the department needs to take the lead in developing new programs designed for these youths.

Stanley E. Weinstein, president and chief executive of the Woodbourne Center in Baltimore, said a juvenile offender might be emotionally disturbed but not have the kind of acute mental illness necessary for admission to a residential treatment center, or RTC.

"To remove a child from the community, you have to have good clinical reasons," he said. "Some who come from DJS don't necessarily meet medical necessity requirements, even though they may need a structured program - one that is well resourced and with a clear set of goals."

Mark E. Greenberg, chairman of an association that represents all 13 licensed RTCs in Maryland, said about 40 percent of their residents were sent by Juvenile Services. But he said that for a youth to be placed in one of the 10 privately operated or three state-run RTCs, a psychiatrist has to certify that the youngster requires the intensive treatment offered in those facilities. Sometimes, Greenberg said, the state fails to assemble the necessary papers.

"The idea that we're not going to serve DJS kids doesn't make sense from a business or a service perspective," said Greenberg, who is administrator at Villa Maria, a nonprofit treatment center in Lutherville.

Jim McComb, director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, an association of group homes and other service providers, said the state ultimately is responsible for not getting youths placed in appropriate programs more quickly.

"Their referral and placement process is really broken," McComb said. "They often refer children to places that might accept them, but they don't follow up effectively." He said state officials have not told private providers what services they need and are willing to pay for.

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