A (very) fresh face at DJS

Our view: Sam Abed, Gov. O'Malley's choice to lead the Department of Juvenile Services, needs to hit the ground running if he is to succeed where others have failed

February 08, 2011

Sam Abed, Gov. Martin O'Malley's choice to lead the state's troubled Department of Juvenile Services, is a young man with lots of energy and fresh ideas about how to meet the needs of troubled youth — but not a lot of experience actually doing it.

Mr. Abed, 35, is a former prosecutor and juvenile justice official from Virginia, where he served just under five years as deputy director of Virginia's Juvenile Justice Agency, which is part of that state's department of corrections. But as Maryland's DJS secretary, Mr. Abed will become a cabinet-level official reporting directly to the governor. That should give him the clout he needs to make whatever reforms he feels are necessary to turn the deeply dysfunctional department around — as well as confer on him the ultimate responsibility for its successes and failures.

Mr. Abed comes highly recommended by, among others, former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, and he was considered a rising star in Democratic circles there despite his lack of an extensive track record in a state not known for having an excellent juvenile justice system.

On the other hand, Donald DeVore, Mr. Abed's immediate predecessor at DJS, arrived here with a glowing, 30-year resume, yet he never managed to get control of the agency's seemingly intractable problems.

In just the last year, for example, the department was exposed in a withering state audit for mishandling some $170 million in contracts for work performed without the necessary approval of the state Board of Public Works. And in one of the year's most tragic incidents, Hannah Wheeling, a 65-year-old teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, was sexually assaulted and killed outside the low-security cottage for troubled boys. Police identified a 13-year-old at the facility as the suspect; he is currently awaiting trial.

Mr. Devore's tenure suggests that no amount of experience is by itself enough to guarantee success when matched against an entrenched culture of failure and mismanagement built up over decades.

The critical deficiencies at DJS include the failure to keep inmates and staff safe and secure; inadequate and ineffective treatment and counseling programs; and poor financial oversight of procurement, contracting and budgeting. What's worse — as Mr. Abed himself recognized in an interview this week — they all have to be dealt with together, because improvement in any one area depends on improvement in all the others. You can't have meaningful treatment and counseling programs, for example, if kids and staff live in fear for their safety; nor can you provide and maintain adequate facilities if budgets are out of control.

If Mr. Abed is to make a dent in any of these problems, he'll need not only dedication and enthusiasm but an ability to hit the ground running and then to sustain a maximum effort to put the pieces of a badly broken system back together so that Maryland's most troubled youngsters can get their lives back on track.

In person, Mr. Abed comes across as thoughtful and driven. He prides himself on taking an evidence-based approach to problems that relies heavily on number-crunching to identify their source and suggest specific solutions. He will undoubtedly keep the department's analysts busy over the next few months as he sorts through past and present difficulties, trying to get to the bottom of what ails the agency.

But we are nonetheless being asked to take a major leap of faith with the direction of what is almost certainly Maryland's most problematic agency. It's virtually inconceivable that the Senate would reject a Democratic governor's nominee for a cabinet post, but we need more than a token confirmation hearing, and we need continual oversight and scrutiny of DJS to ensure that the reforms the governor has promised are actually being made. Maryland has failed the youths committed to that agency for too long for us to take any more chances.

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