Montague trip dispute

Critics say he traveled as juvenile services deteriorated

January 14, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,[sun reporter]

Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. traveled out of state at least 29 times during his four years in office to attend conferences or retreats and tour juvenile facilities-- even as criticism mounted here that his agency and its programs were a shambles.

The trips to Miami Beach, Phoenix, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Nashville, New Orleans, Denver, San Diego and other cities are described in records recently released by the state in response to a Public Information Act request filed by The Sun.

As Montague took to the road, the agency he headed was being pilloried by federal investigators and an independent state monitor for unacceptably high levels of violence, severe overcrowding and other problems in juvenile detention centers.

The U.S. Justice Department found that the agency was violating the constitutional rights of youths held at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, where they suffered "significant harm and risk of harm."

The state monitor pointed to conditions so crowded at another facility that boys were sleeping on cots in the bathroom, and described gang fights and near-riots at other centers where youths had too few activities to keep them occupied.

Private organizations, some funded by federal grants, paid for many of Montague's trips; critics say the issue isn't necessarily the cost but poor judgment by Montague in being away so often while the agency was in turmoil.

"Why are we traveling so much when we should be focused on how we are going to improve the system?" asked Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel Democrat who sits on a subcommittee that oversees juvenile services.

DeGrange expressed surprise when told of the number of Montague's trips, and said the travel does not appear to have resulted in significant improvements to the agency or its treatment of juvenile offenders.

In an interview, Montague said he learned valuable information on his trips that helped him move the department forward, and said he sees no need to defend them. He said his agency has launched many innovative programs based on information he gathered on the trips.

For example, he said, a trip to Chicago led to the development of evening reporting centers in Baltimore and in Prince George's County that were more effective in keeping youths out of juvenile detention facilities they didn't need to be in.

"You have to go out and find out what's out there," Montague said. "You're not going to find it here in the state of Maryland."

But others question the need for such extensive travel.

Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who heads JJ FAIR, a group that serves as an advocate for juveniles and their families, suggested that Montague's time would have been better spent visiting juvenile facilities in Maryland and talking to front-line staff about problems they faced and how to fix them.

She said the federal Justice Department reports spelled out in detail the remedial steps Maryland needed to take to improve its long-troubled juvenile system.

"The law says you must provide a safe, humane and caring environment in your facilities," Gurian-Sherman said. "Does it take having to go out of state to know what that means?"

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has not said whom he plans to appoint as juvenile services secretary. Montague said he has not talked with the incoming administration about his status.

Montague traveled out of state far more often than his predecessor, Bishop Robinson, who could recall taking one trip out of state in the three years he headed the juvenile services agency.

In discussing the travel issue, Robinson stressed he was not criticizing his successor. He described Montague as "a great guy and a gentleman of the highest order."

Montague, a Democrat, was a longtime legislator when Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose him to head juvenile services. While he had been a champion of juvenile reforms in the General Assembly, he had little managerial experience.

Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor who serves as an advocate for troubled children, said Montague was a "great legislator," but she added that running an agency requires different skills.

"The last four years, things have not gotten better, they've gotten worse. And at a certain point, the person at the top is responsible," Leviton said. "Maybe he had good ideas, but he couldn't get them implemented. Kids in the system are not any better off."

Responding to criticism of his management skills, Montague said: "I wasn't hired to be manager. I was hired to be a leader, and that's what I've done."

Although some of Montague's trips were with larger groups from Maryland to tour juvenile facilities or to review programs, most were to conferences hosted by professional organizations such as the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and American Correctional Association.

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