Report on juvenile jails is criticized

Department head says monitor failed to follow protocol

May 12, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

A visibly angry Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. lashed out yesterday at the state's independent monitor for releasing reports critical of his agency, saying she was "disrupting services" for children and unfairly tarring his staff.

Montague didn't dispute the findings of independent monitor Katherine A. Perez, who reported that youths were forced to sleep in bathrooms at one crowded detention center and that monitors saw a male staff member throw punches at an unruly girl at another.

But Montague said at a news conference that Perez didn't follow proper procedures before releasing her reports to the public. He said she failed to allow the agency enough time to thoroughly report on the actions it had taken to address the problems.

"This failure compromises our ability to work with the monitor" to improve services for youths, Montague said.

In an interview later, Perez said that she was just doing her job. She said she followed written protocols and reported on conditions that needed to be exposed.

She released two reports this week on incidents that she and her staff observed in February and March. Both reports included a written response from the Department of Juvenile Services.

"I have no ax to grind," said Perez, a former District Heights police chief who was hired by the Ehrlich administration in January for the monitor's job.

"Secretary Montague should see our reports as a way to help him help the children," she said.

Montague's comments drew rebukes yesterday from House Speaker Michael E. Busch and from a leading advocate for juvenile offenders.

"The [juvenile services] department should be looking at ways to address these problems, not blaming the person who discovered it," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat.

He said it should be "appalling to anybody who lives in Maryland that we have kids sleeping in restrooms and male staff members abusing girls" and that Perez properly exposed those conditions in her reports.

Stacey Gurian-Sherman of JJ FAIR, a group that is an advocate for youths in the juvenile system, said Montague was creating a "red herring" in complaining about procedures.

"The fact that the secretary held this press conference shows that his back is against the wall," she said. "They've gone beyond denial of truth to the denigration of truth. This is a classic case of attacking the messenger."

At his news conference, Montague said the news media have failed to report on many of his agency's successful reform efforts.

In a five-page letter to The Sun, handed out to reporters, he pointed out that he sponsored the legislation that created the Office of the Independent Monitor in 2002. Montague said he has worked steadily to improve the system as secretary of juvenile services under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"What we are doing can't be fixed easily or quickly but I know first-hand that Governor Ehrlich's reform plan for the State's juvenile justice system is providing better care, better education and better opportunity for the youths we serve," he wrote.

Montague suggested during the news conference that the release of the monitor's reports might have been politically motivated.

Although the Ehrlich administration hired Perez to head the monitor's office, the General Assembly voted to remove the position from the governor's purview and instead placed it under the attorney general.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is the father-in-law of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is hoping to challenge Ehrlich in the November election. Montague said that had left him wondering whether the reports might have been released for political reasons.

Perez said she hasn't spoken to Curran beyond his welcoming her on her first day at the office. She said no one tried to influence the way she wrote the reports or how she released them.

"It saddens me that he would say that," Perez said of Montague's comments.

"My reports are not political," she said. "I don't know Martin O'Malley. And I never met the governor, and he appointed me.

"I'd prefer that people use the information that we provide to effect change to make things better, not politicize it."

Perez said many hard-working, decent people in juvenile services have told her that they welcome what she is doing to put a spotlight on problems that need to be addressed.

"I would love it if they'd fix the problems and I'd be out of business," she said.

greg.garland@baltsun.com

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