2 workers are fired, 3 disciplined over youth center killing

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

Five employees of the state-run Cheltenham Youth Facility were fired or disciplined after a review determined that security protocols were violated before and during the February killing of a teacher at the juvenile detention center for boys in Prince George's County.

The actions were announced Thursday by Donald W. DeVore, secretary of Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services. He would not name the affected employees but said two residential assistants were fired, a high-level administrator was demoted, and a supervisor and a program manager were suspended. The suspensions were for 10 days or less, officials said.

DeVore repeatedly stressed that he had acted after a "preliminary" review, an acknowledgement that repercussions from the department's first on-site homicide of an employee are just beginning.

A criminal investigation has identified a 13-year-old suspect, but no charges have been filed.

Union officials who represent teachers and other employees at the facility said Thursday that they continue to press the state for guarantees of long-term security upgrades and staffing changes to make Cheltenham safer for their workers. Also, admissions to the low-security, short-term Re-Direct program -- where the 13-year-old was assigned -- have been suspended, and DeVore said he has not ruled out closing it pending a longer investigation.

The Re-Direct program, which operates on the Cheltenham grounds but outside the razor-wire fencing, takes offenders who have been found the equivalent of guilty by a juvenile court but do not have a history of major mental illness or violent crime such as murder, first-degree assault or first-degree sex offense, according to the Department of Juvenile Services.

Law enforcement sources said the 13-year-old suspect in the death of Hannah Wheeling, 65, of Bel Air was being held in a burglary. Since the slaying, he has been moved to a juvenile facility in Western Maryland.

A November report by state monitors noted that the Department of Juvenile Services has expanded Re-Direct to allow more youths to move to the less secure area as "part of a strategy to mitigate overcrowding" inside the fenced sector of Cheltenham. The report was done by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit of the state attorney general's office, which by law routinely reports on 25 juvenile programs, including eight detention centers.

Wheeling's partially clothed body was found by another employee Feb. 18 outside a building called Murphy Cottage at Cheltenham, and she appeared to have been beaten to death and sexually assaulted, said law enforcement sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. It appears Wheeling was attacked in a stairwell at Murphy and her body dumped just outside a door, sources familiar with the investigation said. The cottage does not have surveillance cameras, said department spokesman Jay Cleary.

A general studies teacher, Wheeling was a mother of two who spent time watching cooking shows on TV, neighbors said.

Prosecutors have said they are moving deliberately in bringing charges because juvenile court proceedings are expedited compared with those in circuit court. Because the suspect is younger than 14, he would have to be first charged as a juvenile, and his case then waived to adult court. Investigators recovered a bloody shirt belonging to the boy and obtained a statement from him, sources have said.

Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, declined to comment on the case Thursday and said he did not know when charges might be filed.

Cheltenham, on Frank Tippett Road, is a detention facility for boys ages 12 to 18. In 2008, it emerged from federal oversight after making significant progress in reducing violence and improving medical and other services. However, independent monitors in a 2009 report cited continuing problems with staffing shortages and crowding beyond its state-defined capacity of 115. Cheltenham was "continuously" overpopulated in 2009 -- reaching 151 in June -- and the steady rise "is of great concern," monitors concluded. The monitors also said Cheltenham suffered staff shortages in 2009 because of workers taking unscheduled time off or being on sick leave. In each of the last two years, 15 attacks by youths caused injuries to staff members, the monitors reported.

DeVore declined to offer specifics about his review of the teacher's killing, citing the criminal review. But he said the security lapses involved "deviations" in procedures that demand youth offenders be kept in staff sight lines, be monitored as they move through the facility and be covered in head counts. Previous monitoring reports on Cheltenham noted that counts were supposed to be done every 30 minutes.

Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union would appeal the firings. Under terms of the AFSCME contract at Cheltenham, the state has 30 days to fire employees once it recognizes a potential firing offense, a clock that was about to expire in the Cheltenham review, Moran said. He questioned the thoroughness of the department's inquiry.

"Taking it out on front-line employees who execute bad policy and procedures without addressing the policy and procedures is ducking the issue," he said.

George Myers of the Maryland Professional Employees Council, which represents teachers at Cheltenham, said the bigger concern is making sure Cheltenham is safe and employees protected.

Cheltenham's superintendent, Quanetta West, said by e-mail that she was on vacation and declined an interview request.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company