Overcrowding hurts D.C. juvenile center

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By Henri E. Cauvin
Friday, September 24, 2010

Overcrowding is hurting the effectiveness of the highly touted rehabilitation program at New Beginnings, the District's 15-month-old juvenile detention center in Laurel, the city's juvenile justice director told the D.C. Council on Thursday.

New Beginnings is well over its 60-bed capacity, and more than a third of the 70 juveniles there are in transit to other placements and don't participate in much of the facility's carefully structured, months-long program, said Robert Hildum, the juvenile justice director.

Detainees awaiting placement can disrupt the detention center because they don't have the same incentives to behave, officials say. A disturbance in June that drew several police agencies to New Beginnings began in a unit housing such youth.

Hildum, who was named in July to lead the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, said that correcting the population problem is one of his priorities. Until it's resolved, he said, he won't be able to judge the performance of New Beginnings, which opened in May 2009 and is modeled on a successful program in Missouri.

"New Beginnings has never had the ability to function as it was designed," Hildum said.

He was appearing before the council for the first time since his appointment, and he used the session to outline his concerns and priorities for the agency before Human Services Committee Chairman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

DYRS came under fire earlier this year after several high-profile crimes involving juveniles. In July, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty forced out the agency's director, Marc A. Schindler, who had fallen out of favor with Attorney General Peter Nickles. Hildum, who was the city's chief juvenile prosecutor and a top aide to Nickles, was named to replace Schindler.

The ouster of Schindler, who been a key player in reforming the city's long-troubled juvenile justice agency over the last five years, alarmed supporters of that effort. In his testimony Thursday, Hildum sought to address fears that, as a former prosecutor he was rolling back reforms.

"I think the foundation we have is pretty solid," he said.

Hildum praised the work of his predecessors, Schinlder and Vincent N. Schiraldi, who led the agency for nearly five years before being succeeded in January by Schindler. And Hildum said that agency was making progress in its bid to conclude a long-running class action suit over the care of juvenile delinquents.

But Hildum made clear that he had concerns that he was seeking to address even as speculation begins over who will be appointed to lead DYRS in the next mayoral administration. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost the democratic primary on Sept. 14.

Hildum also said he was taking steps to address concerns over how DYRS places youth in the community and how the agency supervises them once they are there.

Every youth's file is being reviewed to ensure that critical risk factors have not been overlooked, he said. DYRS has stepped up efforts to track down youth who have absconded from group homes or otherwise fallen out of contact with the agency, he said. And after finding that some juvenile offenders with mental health needs are not receiving treatment while they are supervised in the community, Hildum has directed his health team to do more to see that such care is provided.

cauvinh@washpost.com


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