Juvenile justice monitor quits

Perez exposed abuses in state youth facilities

August 19, 2006|By RONA KOBELL | RONA KOBELL,SUN REPORTER

Katherine Perez, the independent monitor who has spent the past eight months exposing abuses in Maryland's juvenile justice system, is leaving her post to become Bowie's first police chief.

Perez, 44, will assume control of the newly created department next month and will eventually supervise about 65 officers. The move, announced yesterday, came as a surprise to juvenile justice advocates, many of whom have praised her commitment to children and her detailed reports about crowding, violence and poor conditions in the state's detention facilities.

Perez, who was police chief of District Heights before taking the monitor position, said she hadn't been looking to leave her state job but couldn't pass up the opportunity.

"For a law enforcement professional to get the chance to start their own police department and do things right from the get-go is a dream come true," Perez said yesterday.

During her tenure monitoring the juvenile justice system, the Connecticut native and her staff made several surprise visits to state-run juvenile detention centers around Maryland. What she found still haunts her, she said.

At the Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, she saw a male staff member throw punches at an unruly girl. At the Lower Eastern Shore Children's Center in Salisbury, she found a boy sleeping with his head at the foot of a toilet bowl because the facility was so crowded. At the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, she discovered that staffers had falsified records, indicating that they attended training when they had not. She documented all of these problems in reports to the state.

"The face of a child sleeping next to a toilet bowl -- that will remain with me for the rest of my life," Perez said.

When a state juvenile justice official said he couldn't guarantee that such an incident wouldn't happen again on a crowded weekend, Perez said, she became more determined to expose problems and push for change.

Though juvenile justice groups praised her thoroughness, Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. complained that Perez's reports were "disrupting services" and unfairly maligning his staff. Montague accused Perez of not giving him enough time to review and respond to the reports before releasing them.

Perez also endured criticism that she was trying to embarrass the Ehrlich administration. Though Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed her, the General Assembly later passed a law putting her position under the office of the Maryland attorney general. The move was supposed to make the monitor more independent, but Perez said people accused her of having political motives because Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.'s son-in-law, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, is challenging Ehrlich in the race for governor.

Deputy Attorney General Donna Hill Staton, who worked closely with Perez, said she saw no evidence of political influence. "I have every confidence that Katherine Perez was doing what she thought was the right thing, and her only concern was doing the right thing for the children," Staton said yesterday.

Sharon Rubinstein, communications director for the nonprofit group Advocates for Children and Youth, called criticism of Perez a distraction to the larger questions raised about serious abuses within the system.

"I didn't hear, `No it isn't true.' They were questioning the forum, but not the substance," Rubinstein said. "I wanted to hear more about the substance."

Under the new law, Curran will choose the next monitor. Perez said she hopes her successor continues to put reports online for the public to see. She said her experience as a monitor will be invaluable in her next job; she can use her inside knowledge of the worst places in the system to try to scare teenagers straight.

"It's one thing to work with children -- and I have, my entire career -- but, knowing the ins and outs of the system, I can say, `You do not want to go there, and let me tell you why,'" she said.

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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