Md. agrees to changes at city juvenile center

Deal mandates improvements to mental health, educational services

May 22, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

Maryland and the U.S. Department of Justice have reached a settlement agreement to improve conditions at the troubled Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, the state's juvenile services secretary said yesterday.

Secretary Donald W. DeVore said that the one-year pact, signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last week, helps the state avoid a federal lawsuit. The U.S. Department of Justice sharply criticized the center's management and staffing in a recent review.

"This avoids any litigation and is a good-faith commitment on the part of the state and on the part of DOJ that, with the right leadership, we can get these things done," DeVore said in a phone interview.

The agreement, which will be announced today in Baltimore, essentially extends a pre-existing settlement involving the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School and Cheltenham Youth Facility to cover the city's juvenile justice center, the secretary said. The improvements mandated for Hickey and Cheltenham will now apply to the city's center, he added.

The agreement requires a series of changes including improved mental health and educational services and behavior management, DeVore said. The children's units will be made "suicide-proof," he said, noting in particular that accessible railings on the second floor will be enclosed with Plexiglas. Related construction begins this week, he added.

DeVore, who served as Connecticut's juvenile justice director before being appointed this year by O'Malley, said the staff will also reduce the amount of seclusion for juveniles at the center. The Justice Department had criticized the center's staff for not more closely monitoring those held in seclusion or on suicide watches.

DeVore said the center will be monitored quarterly. He estimated that the cost of those reviews, as well as fees for staff training and physical improvements to the building, will total about $138,000.

State monitors and federal authorities have issued a series of damning reports over the years about conditions inside Maryland's juvenile detention facilities, pointing to out-of-control violence, inadequate staffing, a lack of programs and other problems. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised to reform the faltering juvenile system when he ran for office in 2002, but problems continued during his tenure - even though he closed some troubled residential treatment programs and downsized others.

The state-run center in Baltimore was the subject of a Justice Department review in 2005 that led to a highly critical report released last fall at The Sun's request. It stated that pervasive violence on site "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 federal report stated that the 144-bed detention center - which houses juveniles accused of assault, drug dealing and other serious crimes who have pending court dates or are awaiting other placements - was run in an unconstitutional manner because it failed to adequately protect children. Youth-on-youth violence, the report said, was "unacceptably high" at the North Gay Street facility.

"I don't believe that there were conditions there that were unconstitutional," DeVore said yesterday of the center. "But I do believe that we can greatly improve our quality of care. ... I am agreeing that we definitely need to make these improvements that they're recommending."

More details about the agreement are expected to be released today. A spokesman for the governor, who was in Las Vegas for an international shopping centers convention, did not return a request yesterday for comment.

Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's civil rights division, also declined to answer questions.

"Until anything is final and signed off on tomorrow, I'm really not at liberty to talk about it," she said.

Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland Law School professor and director of the Children's Law Clinic, said O'Malley was wise to move quickly with a formal agreement. She said children cannot learn to respect and abide by the law unless adults provide an appropriate example.

"I think that in tight budget times, kids get left out," she said. "So when there are commitments, and the Department of Justice is looking over our shoulders, then things can change. It's a shame that it has to get to that, but that is often what is required."

Sharon Rubinstein, communications director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said she was not privy to settlement details but said that she hoped it would expand services of all kinds to the children residing at the Baltimore center.

Rubinstein also emphasized that troubled youths can be rehabilitated at home and served by their communities. Incarceration isn't the only answer, she said.

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