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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Trouble for Troubled Youth

INFERNAL CONDITIONS and hair-raising abuses at Maryland's juvenile detention facilities are nothing new. As a candidate for governor in 2002, then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) Jr. cited them as he hammered away at his opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), whose portfolio included oversight of the state's centers and reform schools for wayward youth. So it is hardly possible for Mr. Ehrlich, as governor, to take the position that he has been blindsided by the latest reports about a sadistic guard who preyed on teenage boys for several months this winter at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Montgomery County. But it is fair to ask why, after years of scrutiny by the Justice Department and an independent state monitoring office, coupled with the governor's own electoral promises of reform, violence and ill-treatment persist for some of the state's most troubled teenagers.

The details of abuses at the Noyes facility, in Rockville, described in a report by the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, are sickening. For at least three months before he was exposed in February, a guard there organized his teenage charges into a violent fraternity known as "the family" whose trademark initiation rite involved stripping boys and punching them in the groin. The guard deployed members of "the family," called "soldiers," to beat up other detainees and generally do his bidding; their rewards for obedience included cell phone privileges, pizza and movies. Two other guards at the center also encouraged youths there to fight with each other and to brutalize weaker detainees. In a separate incident at the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, three youths were kept in seclusion for five consecutive days, in violation of state law.

In the aftermath of reports last fall of violence and abuse at another facility, the state's new juvenile jail in Baltimore, Mr. Ehrlich belatedly turned his attention to the problem. With the addition there of new high-ranking officials, there are signs that his administration is devoting the energy the governor initially promised to serious reform.

But systemic problems remain, including, first and foremost, staffing. Guards at the facilities tend to be poorly paid, inadequately trained and hired on contracts, meaning that they have little incentive for good performance or long-term improvement. Moreover, a number of facilities have been severely short-staffed. At the Noyes facility, just 20 employees are charged with handling about 57 live-in teenagers; that's less than half the number needed, according to the state's independent monitor. That shortage contributed to the recent abuses; the guard who oversaw "the family" was the only one on duty in charge of nearly 20 teenagers, and he often worked a double-shift of 16 hours. Best practices for that number of detainees call for having two guards on duty per shift.

Improving the staffing picture will be difficult, especially at Noyes. Few people in high-priced Montgomery County are willing to work in such rough conditions at the wages paid to inexperienced guards: less than $25,000. Even when applicants are selected, it takes months to screen them for drug use and perform other background checks, and to train them for a demanding job. Unless he devotes more time and energy to reforms, Mr. Ehrlich, having used the juvenile justice facilities' failings as an electoral issue in 2002, may find them coming back to haunt him when he runs again in 2006.

Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page A22
Washington Post Editorial


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