Md. Official Quits Juvenile Services Post

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

A high-ranking official with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services resigned yesterday amid allegations that he abused children at a youth boot camp in Montana and ignored reports of excessive use of force there.

Chris Perkins, director of Maryland's juvenile detention facilities, stepped down a day after a Montana judge unsealed an investigative report describing the abuse of at least 14 teenagers at the Swan Valley Youth Academy during Perkins's tenure there from 2003 to 2006.

According to the report, Perkins and other staff members at the boot camp used "intimidation," "brute force" and "threats" to create an "environment of fear" and a "culture of terror" that eventually led to the program's closure last year. At various times during Perkins's tenure, staff members forced youths to exercise naked for hours at a time, repeatedly slammed several juveniles against a wall and placed them in isolation, in one case for days at a time, according to the report.

Reached at his home yesterday, Perkins, who was hired in May to run the Victor Cullen Youth Center in Frederick County, said the Montana allegations were unfounded. He said he decided to resign his Maryland post because the reports had caused a national media storm.

There have been no allegations of wrongdoing at Victor Cullen.

"It was my decision to leave," said Perkins, who was promoted recently to director of the state's juvenile detention facilities. "I was not forced to resign. I felt it was in the best interest of the department."

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who was asked about Perkins at an unrelated news conference yesterday, referred questions to Juvenile Services. Department spokeswoman Tammy Brown said Monday that the department had begun an investigation into Perkins's background that thus far had "exonerated" him of any wrongdoing.

She said Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore was unaware of the Montana allegations and had not seen the confidential abuse report unsealed Wednesday.

That statement appears to conflict somewhat with Perkins's account. Perkins said the state attorney general's office had received copies of the confidential abuse report and a report about licensing violations two weeks ago and that DeVore's office was made aware of the specifics of the reports at that time.

In a statement released yesterday, Brown said Perkins had stepped down because he "acknowledged the media attention surrounding the Montana case that was dismissed has been a distraction to the department and he does not want to further hinder the department's progress." The statement also said DeVore viewed Perkins's contribution as "vital in the progress of the department."

Brown did not return a call requesting further comment.

DeVore, who once worked with Perkins at a juvenile program in Pennsylvania, tapped Perkins to serve as superintendent of Victor Cullen in May, shortly before the once-decrepit Sabillasville facility reopened after a five-year closure. His hiring and the center's reopening were heralded by O'Malley and DeVore as a turning point for the state's long-troubled juvenile justice system.

Questions about Perkins's appointment to the $76,000-a-year Victor Cullen job and his subsequent promotion were first raised in the Baltimore City Paper. DeVore and other department officials have said repeatedly that they were unaware of the abuse allegations when Perkins was hired.

Marlana Valdez, the independent monitor charged with reviewing conditions at Maryland juvenile centers, said she was disappointed that a more thorough check was not done before his hiring.

"I think this has been a really unfortunate chapter, and it's a chapter that could have been prevented by a full check of his recent employment," Valdez said. "I hope the department is really seriously looking at closing gaps in their hiring process."

Montana's Public Health and Human Services Department began investigating allegations of abuse at Swan Valley after a nonprofit civil rights organization raised concerns about the facility. State health officials found 19 licensing violations, according to a 2006 agency report. The licensing report concluded that Perkins and the staff did not always report complaints of abuse to the proper authorities, as required.

Joseph Newman, Perkins's former boss and chief executive of Cornerstone Programs Corp., the Colorado-based company that ran Swan Valley, said yesterday that he suspended Perkins in November 2005 and fired him in February 2006 after the investigation's findings were reported. The company voluntarily closed Swan Valley that month.

Montana health officials launched a separate child abuse and neglect investigation in 2005, state records show. That investigation found that Perkins directly abused or neglected youths under his care during several incidents. In one case, according to the report, Perkins left a boy in mechanical restraints in isolation overnight after a suicide attempt.

The January 2006 report also describes several instances in which youths were forced to exercise to the point of exhaustion while staff members barked orders and cursed at them. In several cases, the juveniles were then were forced to down excessive amounts of water, which often led to vomiting.

Perkins and Swan Valley staff member Jeff Wagner formally challenged those findings. Allegations against them were dropped after Montana health officials failed to show up for a hearing last year. An administrative hearing officer dismissed the case in December 2006 but said allegations had been "substantiated," state records show.

Perkins disagreed with that characterization. "The report's damning; I don't disagree," he said. "But if, at the end of the day, it was as bad as it was, why did the state of Montana not do anything? They knew that this report was undocumented and unprofessional."

Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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