November 11, 2011

If you are a voracious consumer of political news, you probably aren’t familiar with the names of local residents Tyronn Vincent Garner, Jamar Michael Freeman, Rashad Slye, Michael Jordan, Alonzo Guyton or Neil Godleski.

They have little in common, except, according to news accounts, for their links with the District’s juvenile justice agency.

Garner, 17, who died Tuesday after getting shot Halloween night in Georgetown, had been placed in the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Freeman, who was fatally stabbed Oct. 8, was a DYRS ward who had run away from a group home.

Slye, a DYRS ward, was arrested and charged Oct. 23 in the fatal shooting of a Maryland cab driver. Jordan, who ran away from a DYRS group home on Sept. 22 and was picked up by DYRS on Oct. 29, was arrested Nov. 2 in connection with the Oct. 25 homicide of Guyton, a Howard University student.

Godleski was fatally shot in August 2010 by a 16-year-old in DYRS custody. Godleski’s family has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the agency, accusing it of failing to supervise the youth charged with their son’s murder.

After writing more than 30 columns in recent years about DYRS and its failures, I don’t know what is left to say. Youth in the care and custody of the District of Columbia continue to maim and get maimed, rob and get robbed, kill and be killed.

The routine is much the same as it was when I started writing about the youth “rehabilitation” system.

Juvenile offenders are arrested and charged with crimes, go to court and are placed in DYRS supervision, often until age 21. After that decision, the judge has no say in the youth’s placement or treatment. That is a result of a D.C. Court of Appeals decision sought by the city, which complained that judges were mandating expensive treatment programs without regard for the city’s interests.

Typically, the youths who are committed serve six to nine months in the city’s secure detention facility, previously called Oak Hill, now New Beginnings Youth Development Center, in Laurel.

After that, they are placed for rehabilitation in out-of-state residential treatment facilities or back into their communities under DYRS supervision.

That was the routine followed under Vincent Schiraldi, who directed DYRS for nearly five years until January 2010, when he left for a job with New York City government. Schiraldi left a mess, most notably New Beginnings and a community placement program that looked good only on paper.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) called New Beginnings one of the “best rehabilitative facilities in the country” when the $46 million, 60-bed facility opened with great fanfare in 2009. From Day One it was a joke, with the laugh on D.C. taxpayers.

The day after the Fenty entourage left, a youth escaped from New Beginnings. The Post reported that Schiraldi had said he planned to put “prickly shrubbery, possibly rose bushes,” near the fence so young men would not be tempted to try to escape.

Since then, two others have escaped, the most notorious being the 18-year-old who picked the lock on his room in April, beat a guard, stole the guard’s keys, scaled the fence and drove off in the guard’s car.

Old ways die hard at New Beginnings.

I visited New Beginnings this week in the company of Beatriz “BB” Otero, the deputy mayor for health and human services; DYRS Director Neil Stanley; New Beginnings superintendent Capt. Steven Baynes; and Stanley’s chief of staff, Christopher Shorter.

The high price of change was evident. Razor wire topped all of the supposedly “climb-free fencing.”

Workers were installing metal doors throughout the facility, replacing the wood doors. In all, the Gray administration has redirected $2 million in scarce tax dollars to build up security in Schiraldi’s “state of the art” facility.

Stanley and Baynes are stout defenders of today’s New Beginnings. But Stanley acknowledged in an interview that the quality of supervision, monitoring and programs in DYRS’s 20 group homes and community-based facilities are deficient. “Not where they should be as support systems,” is the way Stanley delicately put it.

Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is now chairman of the D.C. Council committee charged with DYRS oversight. Graham is refreshingly open, direct and aggressive in the exercise of his legislative duties — in contrast to his predecessor, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who was embarrassingly supple when he wielded the gavel.

Graham told me via e-mail this week that he has discovered that:

●16 young people killed in the District this year have been at one time under DYRS supervision or supervised by court social services;

●Nine people who are DYRS wards or have recently left DYRS because they reached age 21 have been charged with first-degree murder;

●Of the approximately 225 DYRS youths (ages 18 to 20) placed in the community between April and September, 127 were rearrested.

Deputy Mayor Otero was advised of Graham’s observations. Graham said, and Otero agreed, that they are working hard to find agreement on key DYRS issues. Stanley promises to shake up the agency’s group home and community-based programs. We’ll learn soon enough if he can deliver or if he is part of the problem. Graham, meanwhile, should press on — and keep an eye on that body count.

kingc@washpost.com

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