`Don't touch me. Get off my stomach.'

Monitor details incidents at state's juvenile jails

May 11, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

During surprise visits to state juvenile detention centers, Maryland's independent monitor says, she saw a male staff member throw punches at a girl and discovered a facility so crowded that boys were forced to sleep on cots in the bathrooms.

The incidents are described in two special reports issued yesterday by Katherine A. Perez, who was hired by the Ehrlich administration to monitor the state's juvenile jails.

The reports were issued days after the release of a quarterly review that detailed insufficient staffing, overcrowding and out-of-control behavior in the detention centers.

Perez said reports such as the ones issued yesterday are prepared when an urgent concern arises that can't wait for the quarterly review.

In one report, she describes how she and a colleague saw a male staff member at Waxter Children's Center in Laurel throw punches at an unruly girl as co-workers tried to restrain him.

The girl was standing in a line with other youths when she made derogatory comments about the male staff member, who pulled her away and took her to a seclusion room, Perez wrote. Out of their sight, the monitors heard the girl yelling and cursing loudly at the male staff member, telling him, "Don't touch me" and "Get off my stomach," the report says.

As the yelling continued, the monitors began watching the altercation through a window in a door. They describe seeing the girl spit at the staff member, who raised his fist and moved toward her as a female staff member tried to push him back to the doorway.

"He again moved toward her and was able to swing at the youth twice," the report says. "The monitors were unable to see where the punches landed. [Two] female staff members then restrained the male staff member by pushing him out of the room."

The incident occurred in February, Perez said, and department officials were notified immediately. She prepared a written report in March; it wasn't released to the public until yesterday so that the department would have time to respond, Perez said.

Asked for comment yesterday, Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, did not dispute what the monitors saw but said there was no physical evidence that any of the punches landed. He said the male staff member was dismissed for violating department policies.

"The bottom line is that he was fired because we don't want individuals working for us that demonstrate that kind of behavior," Hopkins said.

The second report detailed findings of a surprise, late-night visit by the monitors to the Lower Eastern Shore Children's Center in Salisbury in March. Perez and a co-worker found 31 youths squeezed into a facility designed to hold 24, the report says.

Three youths were sleeping in bathrooms in plastic "boats" that are used as sleeping cots, the report says. Several other youths were in boats set up in bedrooms intended for a single youth.

Monitors found one youth sleeping with his head on a pillow next to the base of the toilet.

"A staff member stated that these conditions have existed for approximately two nights," the report says. The staff member also said that the youth sleeping in the bathroom "had to be awakened to stand outside and allow for other youth to use the bathroom."

In its written response to Perez, the Department of Juvenile Services said the monitors were "making an assumption" that the boy had to be awakened so that others could use the bathroom.

"Staff reported that no youth used the restroom the night the monitor is referring to," the department said.

Of the report's recommendation that youths be transferred to other detention facilities to avoid overcrowding, juvenile services officials wrote: "Please define overcrowded conditions."

Hopkins said the response was a draft and was not meant to be attached to Perez's report.

He said it is not appropriate to have youths sleeping in bathrooms but that it could happen again if a facility is overcrowded.

"I can't sit here and unequivocally say it won't happen again," Hopkins said. "It's not the preferred method and not the approved method ... but sometimes you have a make a judgment call based on the security of the facility."

He said there is often an influx of youths into detention centers around the state on weekends and that the department does whatever is necessary to deal with the overflow.

"There is no doubt the numbers were up for that weekend and we had conditions that were not normal," Hopkins said.

Some state lawmakers and advocates have been criticizing the Ehrlich administration for failing to develop new residential facilities for juvenile offenders.

The latest figures show that the Lower Eastern Shore Center was filled to its rated capacity Tuesday with 24 youths. Most other state centers were near or over their capacity. A detention center in Hagerstown held 34 youths Tuesday, 10 more than its rated capacity.

Advocates for youths said they are appalled by the monitor's new reports.

"How is it acceptable to have kids sleeping in a bathroom?" asked Sharon Rubinstein of Advocates for Children and Youth. She said the reports show that "chronic, widespread and serious problems" persist in Maryland's juvenile services system, placing children at risk.

Another advocate, Stacey Gurian-Sherman of the group JJ FAIR, said the Department of Juvenile Services is "beyond dysfunctional" and that "we need to hold this governor accountable."

The governor's spokesman declined to comment last night.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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