Judges push for juvenile services

DJS not providing court-ordered help to young offenders, some officials say

June 16, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz and Melissa Harris | Julie Bykowicz and Melissa Harris,Sun Reporters

Some Baltimore judges and defense attorneys have complained recently that the state Department of Juvenile Services is failing to connect young offenders - even ones who have committed serious crimes - with court-ordered services.

At a hearing last week for a boy responsible for second-degree assault, Judge David W. Young said that, too often, the programs promised in court are "pie in the sky" and aren't followed up on by the state agency.

"We need to do more than say we make referrals; we need to make referrals," Young said during the Thursday hearing. "I keep hoping and praying that the gap in what we say we are going to do and what we do isn't as wide as the Chesapeake Bay."

When a judge allows a young offender to stay in the community, the court can order that DJS arrange for services such as individual or family counseling, mentoring programs and education or job training. There is no legal requirement for how long DJS has to carry out court orders, but a judge has the discretion to hold the agency in contempt of court.

Thursday's hearing was the second time in two weeks that the judge, speaking from the bench, has teed off on Juvenile Services, an agency that is struggling to reform itself.

At a May 28 status hearing for a teenager convicted in the MTA bus beating case, a DJS case worker reported to Young that she had only recently been assigned to the case, despite the boy having been sentenced five weeks earlier. The frustrated judge cut off the hearing and began dictating a letter to Secretary of Juvenile Services Donald W. DeVore:

"Hello, Secretary DeVore," Young said, his voice measured. "Once again I have the sad duty to report that your agency has dropped the ball."

The judge said he talked to DeVore instead of sending the letter. "It's not only that case," Young said in a brief interview Friday. "It's one of my ongoing frustrations. He praised DeVore for his "good-faith effort" trying to turn the troubled agency around but said there are not enough DJS workers and that some of the employees he sees in court just aren't hard workers.

"It's a culture that doesn't change overnight," Young said.

DeVore, reached Friday, said "I'm not denying the fact that sometimes there are delays in kids receiving services." But he said that some court orders can be difficult to carry out quickly, since many programs have long waiting lists.

DJS is battling post-court delays on another front, too: There are few options for a young offenders who are ordered into secure treatment. The state has one facility for boys and one for girls and frequently must send kids out of state, a process that can take weeks or even months.

That's what happened to Nakita McDaniel, whom officials called the ringleader of the MTA bus beating. The 16-year-old was sentenced in April. At a status hearing in late May, a case worker said DJS had found a place for her at the in-state facility but could not tell the court whether it fit with the judge's orders for her treatment.

Judge Yvette M. Bryant, sitting in for Young, delayed the hearing, saying she was "quite satisfied that Judge Young would not be satisfied" with the case worker's responses. After a hearing Thursday before Young, Nakita was ordered to an out-of-state facility.

The Sun does not typically name juvenile offenders, but Nakita's name became public when she filed countercharges against Sarah Kreager, the victim in the December bus beating.

Jerry Tarud, who defended a third MTA attacker and said he has been in juvenile court more than 100 times on various cases, called his experiences with Juvenile Services "atrocious" and said he would be loath to take another juvenile case.

"The Department of Juvenile Services has got to be the most incompetent part of government," Tarud said. He said workers are frequently late to court, are poorly prepared and are slow to turn over important reports.

At a status hearing May 30 in the MTA case, Tarud said, a Juvenile Services worker accused his client of skipping a court-ordered appointment. The girl said she was never notified of the appointment. On the witness stand, Tarud said, the worker conceded that it was possible Juvenile Services had simply forgotten to tell her about it.

Although he said he has become accustomed to DJS hang-ups, Young said in court hearings that he was surprised to see them in a high-profile case like the MTA attack.

In a hearing for Tarud's client, he said, "This case is being treated as, 'Oh, well, when we get around to it.' "

DeVore said Juvenile Services recently expanded two popular community-based therapy programs and is analyzing the scope of the problem with connecting children to court-ordered services.

In its review of more than 2,000 Baltimore case files, the agency assessed whether juveniles had recently seen their case workers and whether they were receiving services.

The Sun reviewed preliminary results for the first half of that effort, which showed that hundreds of juveniles have not been receiving the level of supervision and services ordered by judges. DeVore said the second half of the review was completed two weeks ago and that it will be kept confidential until it is checked for accuracy. He characterized the findings as "largely the same" as the first half.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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