Chronic staffing shortages and a dearth of security equipment such as radios plague some of the state's youth detention facilities, problems that extend beyond the Cheltenham Youth Facility where a teacher was killed in February, according to a report by an independent monitor.
The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, which reports to the Attorney General, warns that eight months after Hannah E. Wheeling was bludgeoned to death, allegedly by a 13-year-old detainee at the Prince George's County center, "All staff still do not have basic, essential security equipment at their fingers."
Marlana R. Valdez, the chief monitor, wrote that improving safety "is not about money, it is about choosing to make safety of staff and youth the fundamental priority."
State juvenile authorities disputed many key elements of the report, including assessments of staffing.
Matthew Joseph, director of Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth, said the report "gets to the basic issues" regarding safety, but he worries that the emphasis on reform will focus too much on security infrastructure and not enough on helping offenders.
He said juvenile programs elsewhere, such as in Missouri, have lower recidivism and violence rates than Maryland, without creating youth detention centers that resemble adult prisons "with chains and fences."
"The solution is to build the fences two feet higher," Joseph said. "It may be that. But in addition to that, it's about having a treatment program in place that addresses the cause of the delinquency and transition[s] people back into society. That's not happening anywhere in Maryland right now."
The report released Thursday is the latest in a succession of reviews by state agencies, prompted by Wheeling's death, that refocused attention on the state's facilities that house thousands of youths supervised by juvenile authorities.
A previous study by the inspector general's office focused on four employees at Cheltenham who had failed to do their jobs on the day that Wheeling was killed, and a report by the state licensing department covered the facility's failures in accounting for keys and workers not signing in and out of buildings.
The monitors concurred with these findings but found more widespread, systemic problems with staffing and security equipment and procedures at other institutions, including the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County and the Alfred D. Noyes Center in Montgomery County.
Thursday's report says Hickey and Cullen "lack a sophisticated fence monitoring system" and that staff at Hickey, Cullen and Noyes "do not have personal distress alarms" for emergencies.
Hickey is plagued by "recurring radio shortages," the report says, and staff at Cheltenham often share radios "even when they are working with youth in different areas of the housing units and are out of sight and hearing range from other staff."
In an interview, Valdez said her office is not suggesting that "each and every" staffer have a radio, but she said the current lack of equipment "is just not safe." She said that "staffing continues to be a problem with lots of overtime and the state is going to have to make a decision eventually if it's going to commit the resources to make sure basic hardware and basic staffing are provided."
The agency responds
Donald W. DeVore, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, said in a written response to the report that his agency has instituted a long list of reforms, many of which have already been made public.
They include the firings of two staff members and demotions — including that of Cheltenham's superintendent — and suspensions of others. Supervisors are conducting surprise audits at Cheltenham along with new security training, and implementing new rules for monitoring youths. He also said the department's budget has increased 18 percent since 2007, enough to hire nearly 100 additional residential advisers and repair or buy nearly 50 additional security cameras.
"While there is always room to improve, we believe the department's efforts have strengthened safety throughout Cheltenham and all other facilities," DeVore wrote.
And in a detailed summary, DeVore disputed many of the monitor's findings, saying the authors have a "basic misunderstand of staffing and how security posts are assigned." The secretary says that Cheltenham has 54 radios for 50 staff and Hickey has 56 radios, which he said in his response is sufficient to cover each shift.
State officials wrote in the response that two facilities have wall-mounted personal distress alarms, but installing that system at Cheltenham would cost $400,000. They said implementing all the report's recommendations would cost $6 million.