Aging Md. detention center spurs questions about girls' rehabilitation

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; B01

Maryland's only secure detention center for girls is so old and outdated that frustrated state legislators have raised the prospect of closing the Laurel facility by next year.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

"This is still small enough that we can connect with all of the kids," said McNair, who has worked at several of the state's juvenile detention centers.

In interviews arranged by McNair, two girls at Waxter said that the problems with the facility were obvious to them but that the residents and the staff members generally made the best of the circumstances. The girls are not identified because they are minors.

"It's old," said one of the girls, a 17-year-old who is awaiting placement in a residential program and who had been to Waxter twice before. "They're always trying to work on it." Another girl, a 16-year-old serving several months at the facility, said, "There's nothing wrong with the facility, except we need a new building."

But both girls said they were aware of differences in how boys and girls are treated in the state's juvenile justice system.

"We need more programs for girls," the 17-year-old said as the superintendent looked on. Several of her brothers have been in the system, she said, so she has visited other juvenile detention centers in Maryland. "They get more than we do -- opportunities, supplies."

"It's not fair," interjected the 16-year-old, who has spent time at a state detention center in Montgomery County that houses boys and girls.

"We're still children," the 17-year-old said.

A symbol of disparities

In Maryland, boys outnumber girls about 5 to 1 in the juvenile justice system, and services for boys are not what they should be either, DeVore said.

Still, as the only secure facility for girls in Maryland, Waxter has, for its critics, become emblematic of disparities in the juvenile justice system.

"What surprised me was how much this facility was like an adult correctional facility and how much it did not feel like a therapeutic space for the girls," said Sonia Kumar, a lawyer with the ACLU of Maryland who for several months has been meeting weekly with girls at Waxter. "I do think there are a lot of people who work at DJS and who work at Waxter who care about the girls and how they're doing, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the system is doing what it needs to do."

Over the past few years, the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an arm of the attorney general's office, has repeatedly faulted Waxter for specific incidents and systemic problems.

In its latest special report on Waxter in July, the monitor said that the facility had too few staff members and too many girls and that it was, in violation of state law, continuing to house girls who are serving sentences -- or commitments, as they are called in the juvenile system -- and girls whose cases are pending.

Staffing shortages can make it difficult for overworked employees to ensure the safety of the girls spread among Waxter's three units, the report said. One day in June, a melee erupted after a staff shortage left a group of girls waiting almost two hours to be taken to school, according to a letter from the monitoring unit. A girl with a history of serious mental health issues struck a staff member in the face with a broom, breaking the staffer's nose. A colleague quickly intervened but was set upon by four other girls, who tore off that staff member's clothes.

DeVore said that like every facility in Maryland's system, Waxter faces staffing challenges, which is why he has been working to reduce the number of girls who are sent to Waxter. Designed for 50 to 60 girls, Waxter had 27 girls late last week. But DeVore said the staff members are committed to the girls in their care.

"You will see that we have some enormous challenges with our population," he said. "You will see girls there for murder. You will see girls with very serious mental health problems and horrible histories of abuse and neglect. But you won't see girls being mistreated."

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