Aging Md. detention center spurs questions about girls' rehabilitation

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Maryland's only secure detention center for girls is so old and outdated that frustrated state legislators have raised the prospect of closing the Laurel facility by next year.

Next Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will take up a bill to do just that, and although the legislation's sponsors don't expect the measure to pass, proponents say the shortcomings of the Thomas J.S. Waxter Center reflect a broader failure to address the needs of girls who end up under the supervision of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

"Sometimes you need a big hammer to get attention," said Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert), a sponsor of the bill. "This is a shot across the bow."

Girls, for example, do not have access to the kind of intensive after-school and evening programs that boys do in places such as Prince George's County and Baltimore. Instead, a judge who thinks a girl needs closer supervision than what might be found at home often has no option but to place the child in Waxter.

Waxter's building, constructed in the early 1960s in Anne Arundel County, isn't in line to be replaced for at least six to eight years. Critics see it as a relic of a different era and a sign of the slow pace of change in juvenile justice in Maryland, especially for girls.

"It's draconian," said Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Cathy H. Serrette, who is her court's family division coordinator. She added: "It might be a jail in most people's minds, but that's not what it's supposed to be. The point of the whole juvenile justice system is rehabilitative."

Many states face such challenges, and Thursday, the U.S. House Education and Labor subcommittee on healthy families and communities is to hold a hearing on girls in the juvenile justice system.

Urged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), a family law expert, introduced the bill to close Waxter and another measure to require the Department of Juvenile Services to provide "substantially equivalent" services for girls and boys. Kullen, who heads the General Assembly's women's caucus, and Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt (R-Dorchester), who is a psychiatric nurse, joined Dumais in sponsoring the bills.

Small part of problem

Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore, while acknowledging that he, too, would like the aging Waxter replaced, said that the facility is only a small part of the agency's program for girls and that the state has made a strong commitment to tailoring services to the particular needs of girls.

"One of the first things that we needed to do is put a spotlight and a focus on the girls, and we have done that over the last three years," said DeVore, a veteran juvenile justice administrator who joined the O'Malley administration in 2007.

During a tour of Waxter with DeVore and the facility's superintendent, Johnitha McNair, the center appeared antiquated and spare but clean and orderly.

"Would I like a new facility? Absolutely," McNair said. But what matters most, she said, are the relationships between the staff members and the girls. With two dozen to three dozen girls, Waxter has fewer children than many other state facilities.

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