Under Lock, Key And A Cloud

Citing 3 Escapes In 2 Years, Attorney General Report Questions Safety At Cullen Juvenile Center

July 21, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

The young offenders sent to the Victor Cullen Center, the state's only locked facility for teenage boys convicted of crimes, might be too violent for the workers there to handle, Maryland's juvenile services watchdog said Monday in a report.

The Maryland attorney general's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit questioned whether Victor Cullen is secure enough - citing three escapes in two years, including one on May 27 in which several workers were seriously injured - and raised concerns about employee levels and training, and whether the treatment program used there is effective.

The special report is one of several produced by the attorney general's office and another group that are highly critical of the 48-bed facility in Western Maryland. The Department of Juvenile Services opened it two years ago as a model for three other locked youth facilities the state is planning to build and operate in the coming years.

"It has just seemed to stumble repeatedly, in different ways," said Marlana Valdez, director of the attorney general's monitoring unit.

Department of Juvenile Services officials said in a statement that the "unfortunate" May escape "should in no way overshadow the successes of the youth and the staff at Victor Cullen."

"We have every confidence in the program," said Sheri Meisel, the department's deputy secretary of operations. "The secretary himself has been directly involved in the debriefing of the incident as well as working with all the Victor Cullen staff to continue to enhance the treatment program."

The state had opened the years-dormant Victor Cullen campus just four months after closing Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a nearby private facility at which a youth had died after being restrained by employees. Though the state runs several high-security youth detention centers, Victor Cullen is the only place in Maryland that accepts young offenders who have been ordered into "hardware secure" rehabilitation by juvenile court judges. About 200 juveniles are in out-of-state facilities or are in youth jails awaiting placement in a facility such as Cullen.

The facility's first escape occurred four months after its July 2007 opening, before all the security measures were fully functioning. Then, in June 2008, two juveniles assaulted a staff member and climbed the razor-wire security fence. All three juveniles were quickly recaptured.

But the escape this May was by far the largest and most brutal. At one point, juveniles assembled in a "mob," and some staff members were so fearful for their lives that they locked themselves in offices, according to the report. Two employees needed stitches and others had black eyes and bruises, and after grabbing wire cutters from a workshop, 14 boys escaped. All were recaptured the same night.

The report has prompted some lawmakers and youth advocates who previously have had concerns about Victor Cullen to call for its restructuring, or at least further reviews.

Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, a Frederick County Republican representing the area, said lawmakers - many of whom backed the facility's reopening - "need to take another look at what's going on there."

"There is obviously, despite what DJS tells us, some work to be done on the internal functioning and management of the facility, as evidenced by the fact that there have been three escapes in two years," he said.

The director of Advocates for Children and Youth, which has also produced reports concluding Victor Cullen is ineffective in its current form, agreed.

"If the youth are not almost constantly engaged in constructive activity, what you ultimately see is an explosion, which is what happened here," Matthew Joseph said. "If this program is not going to be closed, it needs a massive dose of technical assistance."

The report Monday also found:

* Offenders at the facility who have violent histories, that often include assaults at juvenile centers, do not respond well to peer-oriented treatment. Others do not have the cognitive ability to participate.

* Some of the residents at Victor Cullen told monitors they need more activities and normally "sit around and play cards" after classes and on the weekends.

* The facility needs more and better-trained employees. High turnover and discipline that followed the May escape have contributed to morale problems.

In its response to the report, the Department of Juvenile Services wrote, "We agree that more structured programming would be beneficial," and said card-playing has been reduced while gang awareness and arts activities have been added. Part of the education program includes an electrical pre-apprenticeship.

Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the department, said that DJS Secretary Donald W. DeVore has "been going out there and personally training staff, going through de-escalation techniques and protocols and mentoring."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.