Gansler ousts juvenile monitor

Montgomery attorney replaces new hire to watch over programs

February 10, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

In office barely a month, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has ousted the state's independent monitor of juvenile detention programs and replaced her with a politically connected lawyer from his home county of Montgomery.

The new monitor is Marlana R. Valdez of Takoma Park, a former family law professor who was campaign manager for freshman Sen. Jamin B. Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is a close ally of Gansler's.

Created in 2002, the independent monitor's office is the state's watchdog over programs for juvenile offenders, and in recent years it has released scathing reports about poor conditions in youth detention facilities.

The office's current director, Claudia Wright, was appointed only last month after a national search conducted by then-Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Wright, a national authority on juvenile justice issues who moved from Florida to take the monitor's job, has been demoted to one of three investigative positions in the office, officials said.

News of her sudden replacement provoked an outcry from youth advocates.

"I find it unfathomable why they would feel a need to do this," said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "This unit can be quite critical of a state agency, and if there is any perception that it's politically motivated, ... I think it's too easy for people to dismiss those findings."

Maryland's first independent monitor, Ralph Thomas, expressed concern that an appointment perceived as political might dilute the office's influence.

"I'm concerned that the process was not open," said Thomas, currently director of criminal justice services for Prince William County, Va. Thomas served on a panel late last year that interviewed several candidates and ultimately recommended Wright for the monitor's job.

"This office needs to have integrity in terms of its findings and cannot be accused of having political motivation," he said.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said politics "had nothing to do" with the decision. Valdez' appointment "was based solely on her ability and her qualifications," Guillory said. "The independence of the director and this unit continues to be just that: independent."

Valdez, 52, will start her new job Wednesday, according to the attorney general's office, which assumed responsibility for the independent monitor in 2006 -- the result of legislation designed to keep the position free of political influence.

The monitor's office has in recent years publicized staff shortages and abusive conditions inside the state's juvenile facilities.

Legislation to expand its scope to include privately run residential programs has recently gained momentum in Annapolis, after the death last month of a teenager who collapsed after being restrained for several hours at a private Carroll County facility.

Officials with the state Department of Juvenile Services have acknowledged they exercise virtually no oversight over staff training at facilities they license and have said their own investigative resources are stretched thin.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who is leading the move to expand the monitor's influence, said he had confidence in Gansler's choice.

"I trust [Gansler] to make a good appointment," said Zirkin, who said he was unfamiliar with Wright and Valdez. "It's his employee. I'll leave it up to his discretion."

Wright could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Valdez declined to speak about the person she is replacing but expressed confidence that she was qualified to lead the office during a period of change.

"In addition to needing someone with a strong grasp of the substantive issues and a history of advocacy for children, frankly the attorney general is going to need someone with very strong management skills," Valdez said yesterday. "I'm very comfortable taking on the job, and I'm really looking forward to it."

After teaching family law for 20 years at American, Georgetown and George Washington universities, Valdez started a consulting firm four years ago focused on helping public-sector clients manage organizational change.

In addition to teaching about children and the law, her experience with juvenile issues includes two years as general counsel of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission in the mid-1980s.

Valdez has long been a grass-roots political activist in Montgomery County, volunteering for various Democratic campaigns. She also served a term in the late 1990s on the county's board of elections.

Raskin's race was her first as a campaign manager, Valdez said. Before running for office, Raskin chaired Gansler's campaign committee when he was Montgomery County state's attorney.

Valdez said she approached Gansler--whom she described as an "acquaintance" -- about her interest in the position shortly after the November elections. She said she was brought in for an interview with his senior staff in the last week of January -- about three weeks after Wright began her short-lived stint as the independent monitor.

Valdez said she was assured by Gansler's staff that she would be free from political pressure.

"I wouldn't have accepted this responsibility, if I didn't believe that first and foremost my responsibility is to kids in the system in Maryland," she said.

"I intend to tell the truth."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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