The personal touch

Editorial Notebook

April 26, 2008|By Ann LoLordo

Maryland's juvenile justice monitor presented a grim view of the Baltimore Criminal Justice Center in her most recent report - assaults at the imposing facility downtown were on the rise. Kids punching kids, teens hitting counselors, the need to physically restrain youths - all up over the first quarter of last year. The monitor's report reinforced a picture of the city's main juvenile jail as out of control.

When state Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore and his staff reviewed the troubling statistics, the numbers didn't tell them all they needed to know. Not by a long shot. The leadership at the facility had changed, and its staff retrained. But problems persisted. As the staff looked deeper, DJS officials found that most of the youths involved in assaults were in a kind of limbo, waiting placement in a residential or treatment program. And while they waited, many of those kids had no visitors. A footnote, perhaps, but it pushed the agency staff to keep asking questions about the kids in its care that helped determine Mr. DeVore's response to the uptick in violence.

Here's some of what the DJS reviewers found: Some of the youths in custody would qualify as special-ed kids. A few hadn't gotten past the second grade. Others had a mental disability and needed medication. More had drug use at home. Of 104 troubled kids, 71 had serious offenses, the majority involving drug selling. The 11 kids who were at the center for minor charges had 123 previous offenses between them - including burglary, robbery and deadly weapons charges.

FOR THE RECORD - The location of the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center was misstated in Saturday's Editorial Notebook. The facility is at 300 N. Gay St. The Sun regrets the error.

A crowded facility, few if any distractions, no one who cared enough to visit. It was a combustible mix. But the profile of the disruptive teens at the center held the key to possibly reducing violence. If there were reasons to fight, there could be incentives not to.

Mr. DeVore first hired 40 more staff. Then he brought in mental health services to cover two shifts, and devised a point system for behavior with rewards along the way. Giant Foods agreed to help pay for snacks, a stocked library, games, keyboards, a TV and other incentives. Several organizations were hired to offer arts, music and an advocacy program. And then Mr. DeVore and 28 members of his executive staff became personally involved: Each took on one of the most at-risk kids to mentor and visit weekly. A group event would be held monthly to build camaraderie: There have been volleyball matches, and last week, during a rap session for Victims' Rights Awareness week, some of the youths talked about getting shot, seeing parents get shot, abuse and other violence in the lives of their families.

Mr. DeVore's young charge was several months past his 17th birthday; both parents had died when he was a child (each had a drug history), and he bounced among a few relatives before ending up in trouble. Within a few weeks, he had advanced up the incentive chart, hoping to reach its top rung and receive a brand-new yellow polo shirt. He was taking his meds.

In two months, the state's juvenile justice monitors will return to the Madison Street facility where juveniles are held before trial and to await placement. They'll review the incident reports, and they should reflect the impact of Mr. DeVore's experiment. But the statistics won't tell the whole story.

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