The toughest cases

Our view: Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services has major challenges dealing with youthful offenders, but overall it appears to be moving in the right direction

January 17, 2010

Last year the state Department of Juvenile Services served some 53,000 troubled youths and their families, most for minor violations that never make the headlines. But a handful of the department's toughest cases did raise serious questions over whether officials there were on top of things. Last summer saw a violent incident at the Victor Cullen Center, the state's flagship secure juvenile treatment facility, in which several youngsters managed to escape after injuring staff members. The year also saw two Baltimore youths who had gone through DJS programs accused of committing heinous crimes in the city while on probation. And a December report by the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, a watchdog group, cited "alarming" rates of recidivism among youths at Cullen that resulted in most of those released being rearrested and charged with more serious crimes within a year.

Thus, when DJS Secretary Donald W. DeVore goes to Annapolis this legislative session to seek General Assembly approval of plans to open new facilities in coming years, lawmakers are sure to ask him about some of the high-profile cases where the agency appears to have fallen down. On Thursday, Mr. DeVore met with The Sun's editorial board to defend his department's efforts, saying DJS has made steady progress toward improving the way it handles the state's most troubled youths but that important challenges remain.

Among the improvements cited by Mr. DeVore were a 57 percent reduction in juvenile homicides in Baltimore and corresponding drops in nonfatal shootings and assaults. Overall arrests were down, and DJS officials were working more closely with police in Baltimore and elsewhere to identify youths at highest risk of committing or becoming victims of crimes, to target them for additional supervision and services.

Mr. DeVore also acknowledged mistakes the department had made in the past. He attributed the problems at the Victor Cullen Center to inexperienced staff and lack of training, which he said the department moved last year to correct. He personally conducted some of the re-training. Mr. DeVore also said the department needed to pay more attention to what happened to kids after their treatment was completed and they returned to their families and that he was increasing the number of probation officers in schools.

But the secretary had less satisfactory answers about a recent U.S. Department of Justice report that claimed Maryland was among the top five states in which juveniles reported being sexually abused by other youths or staff while in state-run detention facilities. He criticized the DOJ's statistical methods and reporting procedures and said a follow-up investigation by his department and child welfare officials found no evidence of current abuse in the facility that the federal officials surveyed. He said he will now interview all the youths who were in the facility at the time of the survey to see whether they could shed light on the matter.

The DOJ's methodology was problematic; it based its conclusions on a small sample and failed to immediately report the allegations to Maryland authorities, as state law requires, making it impossible for the DJS to respond in a timely manner.

But Mr. DeVore's response isn't perfect either. The DOJ surveys were anonymous on the assumption that it would not otherwise get honest answers; it's reasonable to wonder whether interviewing the youths two years after the fact will settle the question of whether abuse took place and whether it might still. Mr. DeVore acknowledges having seen many instances of such abuse in his 35-year career, but he does not plan a wider investigation beyond the facility the DOJ surveyed.

Mr. DeVore is convinced Maryland is on the right track in adopting a treatment model for youthful offenders based on a Missouri program that has been widely praised, and the new facilities he is seeking to open are badly needed -- they would replace, in one case, a detention center that has been in use for more than a century. However, the preliminary plans call for just one new treatment center, not nearly enough to eliminate the state's long list of youths waiting for placement in such a facility or to bring back all the young offenders who have been sent out of state. More construction will likely be needed.

Still, the capital program is the most concrete sign of change the department has seen in years, and we hope lawmakers will give a sympathetic ear to Mr. DeVore's ambitious plans to expand on the improvements he already has made. The department clearly has its hands full in dealing with the state's most troubled youths and likely always will, but it does appear to be heading in the right direction.

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