Gathering will mark year since death at juvenile home

In memory, hope of reform

January 22, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Friends and family will gather tomorrow in Westminster to remember East Baltimore teenager Isaiah Simmons, whose death at a private reformatory one year ago helped spark reforms in Maryland's long-troubled juvenile justice system.

Simmons died Jan. 23 while being forcibly restrained by staff at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Carroll County. His death was ruled a homicide and misdemeanor charges are pending against six former counselors.

The death of the 17-year-old father of a toddler girl was a catalyst for immediate changes to the state's juvenile justice system: The 50-year-old private academy was closed, and officials banned face-down restraints - of the sort used on Simmons - at state-run institutions. More new regulations on disciplinary practices at facilities like the one where Simmons died are expected soon.

In the General Assembly session that began this month, Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, has made juvenile justice reform a centerpiece of his legislative and policy agenda, calling for a $200 million overhaul of dilapidated state-operated youth jails and a commitment to treating youth offenders near their home communities - rather than shipping them off to far-flung programs and out-of-state camps.

"I take a little comfort that they are changing for the sake of other children," said Felicia Wilson, Simmons' mother, who is organizing the gathering in front of the Carroll County courthouse. "I'm hoping and praying that it will prevent another tragedy."

Those involved in Maryland's juvenile justice system say her son's most enduring legacy may be new state regulations sharply restricting how private residential treatment centers in Maryland can discipline youth who are placed there by courts or other state agencies.

"It's so sad that this could only come about as the consequence of a child dying," said James McComb, executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth. "But it's something of a memorial to this young man."

McComb, whose nonprofit lobbying group represents about half of the more than 250 state-licensed private residential child care and juvenile programs in Maryland, said he was told the publication of the regulations is "imminent."

In the days after Simmons' death, juvenile services officials acknowledged that Maryland exercised virtually no oversight over staff training at private group homes such as Bowling Brook.

According to a draft of the new regulations, dated Jan. 8 of this year, the use of face-down prone restraints would be prohibited at all private group homes licensed by the state, as would the practice of isolating youth for disciplinary reasons. Child care workers with the authority to use physical force now will be required to have state-approved training.

Witnesses to Simmons' death told The Sun that he was pinned to the ground, face down, for about three hours before passing out and that he had warned staff he could not breathe. The state medical examiner listed the cause of death as "sudden death by restraint."

Under the new regulations, restraints would not be allowed for more than 30 minutes and would have to be more thoroughly documented.

Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore said stricter regulations, in particular the requirement of state-approved restraint training, would greatly lessen the likelihood of additional deaths.

"The training itself reduces the numbers of restraints that occur," he said.

Indeed, Department of Juvenile Services statistics show that the number of restraints at state-run juvenile facilities dropped from 248 in February, the month DeVore took office, to 158 in December, though the number of committed youth remained steady.

DeVore acknowledged that Maryland has a long way to go before reaching his stated goal of becoming a "zero-restraint" state, but he pointed to Victor Cullen Center in Frederick, which reopened in July, as evidence of the benefits of stricter restraint policies.

At Victor Cullen, a secure facility for 48 juvenile offenders deemed by courts to be too dangerous to return to their communities, there were only a dozen reported restraint incidents last year, compared with 173 at Baltimore County's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School during the same period. Hickey typically houses between 60 and 90 youths.

Additional restrictions on private group homes are likely to be debated in Annapolis this year. Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he will soon introduce a package of bills that would limit the number of new programs and subject existing homes to stricter licensing and reporting requirements.

"I think the change of pace has been hastened because of the tragedy at Bowling Brook," Zirkin said. "I hope to prove to that family that at least some good has come from this."

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