Driven to defend children

The work of Maryland's juvenile justice monitor stems from her own abusive, transient childhood

May 15, 2006|By GREG GARLAND | GREG GARLAND,SUN REPORTER

Katherine A. Perez grew up with an abusive mother and in shelters and foster homes. Her brother was in jail the last she heard. Those who know the woman charged with monitoring Maryland's juvenile detention centers aren't surprised that she has angered some people in advocating so forcefully to improve conditions.

Colleagues describe the 44-year-old former District Heights police chief as hard-charging and relentless. And when it comes to protecting troubled children who come from backgrounds much like her own - ferocious.

"She would always say that no matter what happens, whether it costs you your position, you can never go wrong by doing what's right," said John Nesky, a veteran police officer who was Perez's deputy in the Prince George's County town and succeeded her as chief.

Last week, advocates who have long pushed for reforms of the juvenile services system praised Perez as she released unflinching reports describing poor conditions in the detention centers.

Not so pleased was Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who said she failed to follow procedures used by her predecessor before making the reports public. The department had expected more time to respond, he said.

In her reports, Perez described finding youths sleeping on cots in bathrooms at one crowded center; at another, she saw a male staff member throw punches at an unruly girl. More generally, she reported that many of the state's juvenile facilities are overcrowded, insufficiently staffed and sometimes violent.

If the reports are impassioned, Perez says, it is because she knows from her own life what many youths in the state's care are going through. She understands how badly, underneath the tough veneer, they are hurting.

It is the kind of hurt she felt when, at the age of 14, she and two younger siblings were removed from an abusive home in a tough neighborhood of southwest Hartford, Conn. "I understand it when people are not there for you or can't be there for you," she said. "Everybody's family is not like the Cleavers."

The abuser was her mother, who has since died, Perez said. Her mother had been raising the children after a divorce.

"I moved around to different shelters and foster care," Perez said. Her sister's experience was similar. Her brother wound up in and out of jail.

In an interview Friday, Perez talked about her childhood and the reason she feels such an affinity for youths growing up in tough circumstances. She recalled staying with one family that took in several foster kids, a home where conditions were "awful." The adults were drunk or high most of the time, and kids were often left to fend for themselves, she said.

"It was really, really bad," Perez said. "At times, there was not a whole lot of food in the house. The kids would cook the food we did have. We ate fried potatoes all the time."

Nevertheless, she was a good student. At one point, her best friend's mother took her in. The real turning point in her life, Perez says, came when she was 14 and joined the Police Explorers Club in Hartford. She had known since she was a little girl that she wanted to be a police officer.

"I used to watch Perry Mason and Angie Dickinson in Police Woman, and I wanted to be a little of both - lawyer and cop," Perez said.

By the time she was 16, a social worker decided that she was mature enough to live on her own. She was set up with a place at the YMCA. "I got a little job at a department store close enough to walk to or take the bus," Perez said.

Not long after, she lied about her age so she could rent an apartment. Her brother and sister moved in. "I worked, and we got food stamps," she said.

Manchester, Conn., Police Chief James O. Berry, who was Perez's mentor in the Police Explorers Club, said she was "very intelligent and a go-getter, even at a young age."

After a stint in the National Guard to earn money for college, Perez joined Hartford's Police Department, climbing to the rank of captain before moving to Maryland two years ago. While in Hartford, she earned a master's degree in public administration from Trinity College.

The reassignment of Perez's fiance, an Army major, prompted the move to Maryland. The couple, who live in Bowie, have five children between them. For years, Perez has been a foster and adoptive parent; her fiance shares custody of his two children with his ex-wife.

Perez was hired as police chief of District Heights, a small bedroom community southwest of Washington.

"She was well received by some, not so well by others," said Nesky. Perez came with "a clear-cut vision of what she wanted. ... She definitely left the department in better shape."

Berry noted that in Hartford, Perez oversaw a unit focused on crimes against children. "As I told her when she left the police chief's job, I think the position she is in now is even more appropriate for her because she is such a strong advocate for children," he said.

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