In Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, we're still waiting for Superman

Our view: The current DJS secretary is leaving his department in a mess

Maryland desperately needs someone who can put the troubled agency back on track

November 21, 2010

The departure of Donald DeVore marks the end of yet another secretary who has failed to turn around Maryland's most troubled agency, the Department of Juvenile Services. Mr. DeVore announced Thursday that he would not seek reappointment and was considering career opportunities outside the state. His withdrawal perhaps just saves Gov. Martin O'Malley from having to fire him so that the department, which has been plagued by persistent organizational and security problems, can finally begin to move ahead.

Mr. DeVore, a long-time professional in the field of juvenile justice, came to Maryland with plenty of self-assurance. But four years later, he leaves a department that, despite some progress, is still failing Maryland's most vulnerable kids. Throughout his tenure Mr. DeVore insisted that the problems at DJS were being corrected and that its programs to help young people turn around their lives were working. But those claims were never entirely convincing given regular reports of serious agency dysfunction and disorganization.

The common wisdom about the secretary's tenure is that his record has been "mixed." But his successes seem to have come mainly in areas where the credit had to be shared among many, while his failures were in areas that were his alone to control.

The sharp drop in juvenile homicides since Mr. DeVore arrived on the scene, for example, may have owed something to his stewardship. But the declines might have had just as much to do with Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso's anti-dropout initiatives (the correlation between reduced dropout rates and reduced youth violence is striking), or with new policing strategies that have resulted in a significant overall reduction in violence under Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.

Mr. DeVore also points proudly to the end of federal supervision of Cheltenham Youth Facility, the Hickey School and the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. But all this means is that these three large, perennially troubled facilities, which the state supposedly was trying to phase out anyway, are no longer so badly run that the federal government has to step in to ensure their compliance with minimal health and safety standards. Isn't that something that should be considered, at best, a baseline on which to build, not a major achievement in itself?

On the other hand, consider the litany of breakdowns in the system. These include: the murder of a teacher at the Cheltenham youth facility, which suffered from chronic staffing shortages and a lack of proper safety equipment; the shooting of 5-year-old Raven Wyatt by Lamont Davis, who DJS officials insisted could not have been at the scene because he was under the department's electronic monitoring program at the time; brazen escapes from the Victor Cullen youth facility, which Mr. Devore opened; the chronically sloppy paperwork that made it impossible to verify that at-risk youth were actually being monitored in the community; and the after-the-fact approval of $171 million in no-bid contracts on work that had already been done. All this on top of other lapses that caused the state to lose $3 million in Medicaid matching funds.

What's galling about Mr. DeVore's failure (and that of his predecessors) to turn around the agency is that there is and has been remarkable consensus on what needs to be done. Maryland needs to follow the highly successful Missouri model for juvenile justice, in which intensive community services are paired with small detention centers that foster strong links with family and a therapeutic atmosphere.

It's good that Gov. Martin O'Malley is looking to make changes in his cabinet for his second term, and DJS was an obvious place to start. Given the dismal track record there, it's hard to muster much optimism for a turnaround. Still, we offer this suggestion: Couldn't we just hire somebody from Missouri this time?

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