Saturday, September 18, 2004; Page B02 Maryland's director of juvenile services has reassigned six top managers at the state's troubled youth detainment facility in Baltimore, where an independent review recently found conditions that "posed a threat to the life, health and safety" of the 106 children housed there. The management shake-up was one of several steps that Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. announced at a news conference yesterday, in the wake of a scathing report from independent monitors who inspected the facility in August.
Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. announced changes after a report detailed troubles at the facility. (Department Of Juvenile Services)
There have been two recent suicide attempts, an escape, numerous assaults, gross staff shortages and a revolt in which young residents barricaded themselves inside and set fire to the $60 million facility, which opened less than a year ago, according to the inspection report made public by child advocates Monday.
Montague said he was well aware of the trouble detailed in the report on the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, whose residents, mostly ages 14 to 17, are awaiting trial for a range of offenses that include auto theft, simple assault and drug possession but not usually serious violent crimes.
He said he has been working to solve the acute staffing shortage since April. Problems with violence became more challenging as the population of the center grew to more than double its intended capacity, he said. Still, it was not until this week, when the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor report was made public, that he took significant steps to address the problems.
Asked what took so long, Montague said things "got bogged down."
"No one should doubt the commitment of this administration or myself to the safety and well-being of the children in our care," he said, adding later, "Change is always difficult."
Montague said that he will receive help from Maryland State Police and from workers at other juvenile facilities to supplement the staff and from state personnel officials to accelerate hiring. He said he has located federal grant money to pay for desperately needed equipment for detention officers, such as two-way radios and video surveillance cameras, and to fund expedited background checks of prospective employees.
But his assurances did little to assuage child advocates who have decried conditions at this and two other state facilities for juvenile offenders. "This is damage control," said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "They have not done anything in two years. They've gone in the wrong direction."
Heisner said she was most disappointed to hear Montague say he had at no point discussed the shortage with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who made juvenile justice reform a key aspect of his run for office in 2002.
"Neither the lieutenant governor nor the governor knew about it," Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said yesterday. "The governor expects his senior leadership team to resolve these issues at the first sign. When he was made aware of this this week, he acted swiftly to fix the problem."
Montague said yesterday marked the start of an immediate and urgent effort to hire the staff necessary to keep residents of the facility in line. He plans to reduce the number of juvenile offenders he would be willing to accept at the Baltimore center, perhaps capping it at 72. In the past few days, officials said, they have cut the population from a high of 116 to 89 by sending offenders to other facilities or to home detention.
Crowding -- and the inability of a small staff to control so many young people -- was highlighted by the independent monitor as a reason for the escalation of violence at the center. The situation had become so volatile, the report says, that public defenders and "various ministerial and volunteer groups have not been visiting the facility for fear of their own safety."
Inspectors also had sharp words for the building design. State officials conceded yesterday that the facility opened despite such flaws as breakable glass, unsafe furniture and inadequate space.
The design was faulted for a multi-level tier system that enabled one teenager to tie a bedsheet to an upper-tier railing, knot it around his neck and climb over the side, leaving him hanging by his neck and left hand. He was rescued by a lone staff member and other children standing nearby, the report said. Another resident used pieces of a desk to batter himself, leaving behind a cell "smeared with blood."
Montague said the department is trying to make do with a building it played no part in designing or building.
"We could bring in a wrecking ball and just level this place," he said. "This is just what we've got."
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