Escape at Hickey spurs calls for security review

9 of 10 teens caught, 2 counselors hurt

neighbors worry

May 08, 2007|By Julie Scharper and Greg Garland | Julie Scharper and Greg Garland,SUN REPORTERS

The 10 teenagers who escaped from the Charles H. Hickey School in Baltimore County overpowered two female counselors and apparently slipped through a fence opened with cable cutters, prompting state officials yesterday to promise a review of security procedures at what is supposed to be the state's most secure youth facility.

Police had rounded up all but one of the fugitives by early yesterday evening, but nerves remained frayed among neighboring residents, who complained about the security of the facility.

Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore acknowledged that there was a delay in alerting nearby residents and businesses. They are supposed to be notified promptly through an automated telephone system.

Elected officials, youth advocates and neighbors said that the escape of one-sixth of the facility's juvenile offenders -- who have committed or been accused of serious crimes such as armed robbery and assault -- raises troubling questions about the state-run center in northern Baltimore County.

"There are lots of improvements that need to be made at Hickey," Gov. Martin OMalley said. "Something like this should not happen."

The 10 youths -- among 59 at the facility Sunday night -- were supposed to have been sleeping in locked rooms in a locked housing unit. After overpowering the youth counselors, they used either keys or a control panel to unlock the door to the unit, DeVore said.

DeVore said his agency's staff is conducting a review of what went wrong and will come up this week with recommendations for correcting the problems.

"It's unacceptable," DeVore said.

The two counselors were treated at a local hospital for minor injuries and released, said Beth Blauer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services.

Five boys were caught in the early morning near the intersection of Taylor Avenue and Perring Parkway in Parkville. One turned himself in around 5:40 a.m. and another returned to the school with his mother around 4 p.m., said Maryland State Police spokesman Gregory M. Shipley.

Police arrested one youth in Woodlawn and another at a relative's home in Baltimore. One 16-year-old remained at large yesterday, Shipley said.

The youths who escaped ranged in age from 14 to 19. Most had already been to court and found to have committed crimes, according to DeVore.

They were being held at Hickey while awaiting placements in a suitable treatment program in Maryland or out of state. "Some had been in custody for a long time. Some were more recent," DeVore said.

Investigators are still trying to determine if youths obtained the cable cutters themselves or had help from someone outside the fence, DeVore said.

He added that it is unlikely that the fence could have been cut earlier in the day.

"The perimeter is patrolled and people check it," DeVore said.

Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced in June 2005 that he would close most of the long-troubled Hickey school by that fall. But he said the 72-bed short-term detention center for those awaiting court hearings would remain open indefinitely until a replacement could be built.

Because Maryland lacks residential treatment programs, many youths remain at Hickey and other detention centers for months while state officials try to find places in or out of state that will take them.

Last year, investigators from the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, a division of the attorney general's office, found significant problems with the fence and with homemade weapons and other contraband at the facility, said Marlana Valdez, the unit's director.

"The contraband and dangerous weapon problem at Hickey is much more serious than most other facilities," she said.

DeVore said his agency is trying to determine why an automated notification system malfunctioned and many neighbors did not learn that the boys had escaped until hours later.

Edmund Kunkel, president of the Finney Drive Improvement Association, who lives less than a mile from Hickey, said "Everybody in the area is concerned about that school. ... A lot of people are scared to death."

Ruth Baisden, a community organizer in Parkville, said she received an automated call from state authorities yesterday as part of a service that alerts residents to outbreaks at Hickey.

"We're very concerned," Baisden said. "We have some horror stories of people who have escapees in their backyard or approach them."

There have been 10 "escape incidents" at Hickey in the past five years, according to Blauer, the juvenile services spokeswoman. She did not have information available about how many juvenile offenders had escaped in prior incidents.

The state has long had a difficult time keeping adequate staff on hand at its juvenile facilities and frequently has to assign people to work overtime. Independent juvenile justice monitors, brought in to review procedures, have said that excessive use of overtime to keep facilities like Hickey fully staffed threatens safety and security.

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