Center endangers juveniles, U.S. says

Justice Department study faults state management

Sun Exclusive

October 07, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,sun reporter

Youths held at the state-run Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center "suffer significant harm and risk of harm" from violence because there isn't enough staff on hand, and behavior management and treatment plans are inadequate, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The report says the state has run the 144-bed detention center on North Gay Street in an unconstitutional manner. Specifically, it says that the state has:

Failed to adequately protect children, citing youth-on-youth assault rates 47 percent higher than the national average for such facilities.

Failed to adequately safeguard youths against suicide by not keeping a close enough eye on those held in seclusion or on suicide watches.

Failed to provide adequate mental health treatment and other services for youths who need them.

"The pervasiveness and seriousness of the violence at the Justice Center appears to result primarily from an inadequate behavior management plan, chronic shortages in trained direct-care staff, and the presence of environmental security hazards," the Justice Department report says.

The report, which was based on findings from inspections conducted last fall, was dated Aug. 7. However, it was not released at that time by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services or the federal Justice Department officials. Maryland officials provided a copy when The Sun learned about the report this week and requested a copy.

Juvenile Services spokesman Edward Hopkins said his agency did not feel it was the state's responsibility to release the report, because it was done by a federal agency.

The U.S. agency began investigating the center last summer after advocates and others complained that youths were being mistreated and that the facility was unsafe and not adequately staffed.

The report comes at a time when crime policies have become a major issue in this year's gubernatorial race. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised when he ran for office four years ago to reform the state's long-dysfunctional juvenile services system.

Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said that the federal report reflects conditions that investigators found during inspections a year ago, and that staffing and other issues they raised have been addressed since then.

"The Department of Juvenile Services does not believe that the findings detailed in the report reflect current conditions and practices at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center," Montague said.

He added, "DJS is confident that the youth at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center are at no risk of harm and that there are no systemic constitutional violations at the center." Other juvenile services officials said the youth-on-youth assault rate at the justice center has declined significantly in recent months and is now close to the national average.

Persisting concerns

But while Montague and other officials said conditions have improved at the center, advocates for youths and others said serious problems persist.

The state's independent monitor of juvenile facilities, Katherine A. Perez, wrote Montague a letter about the Baltimore center Aug. 31 in which she noted "the ongoing issue of staffing shortages and the threat to life, health and safety this presents to children."

The letter from Perez, who resigned in September to become police chief in Bowie, accompanied a report by her office detailing an incident in which a 15-year-old boy was beaten in his room at the center by at least a half-dozen youths and the staff either did not know or did not stop the attack.

Stacey Gurian-Sherman, an advocate for juveniles held by the state, said staffing and safety remain a problem at the center, which houses juveniles accused of assault, drug dealing and other serious crimes while they await court appearances or other placement.

"It hasn't been fixed," she said. "Every time they say a problem is in the past, there is a new report that proves they are dead wrong. They are in a constant state of denial because they are politically scared and cannot accept responsibility for the mess they have on their hands."

Among other findings, the federal report says that the state "fails to adequately protect youths from youth-on-youth assaults and suicide risks" at the juvenile justice center, and that youth-on-youth violence is "unacceptably high."

"We reviewed several incidents involving several attackers and lone victims," the report says. "The attacks appeared to be both brazen and premeditated. This reflects that the system is so ineffective that certain youths feel comfortable in orchestrating such activity."

It cites several incidents in which groups of youths repeatedly hit and kicked a victim in front of staff and says that chairs, brooms and makeshift knives have been used to inflict serious injuries.

"In at least two incidents involving chairs, youths required treatment at hospital emergency rooms and one of the victims required emergency surgery for brain trauma," the report states.

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