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In city custody, teens still out causing harm

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The mother was upset when she called me this week about her 16- year-old son. She referred to media reports about the three teens under the care of the District's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services who are charged with the slaying of D.C. school principal Brian Betts. "I don't want to see my son end up like that," she said. (Identities of mother and son are withheld, but Post editors have been provided with their names.)

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Like the three teens charged in Betts's death, her son also has a juvenile record and has been committed to DYRS's custody by the court. She said he has escaped from a DYRS community facility. "He's either going to get himself hurt or end up hurting someone if he isn't caught and placed in detention where he can get help," she said.

Her son, she said, has three drug convictions and one robbery conviction. He has been placed in DYRS community-based facilities four times since his first arrest in March 2009. Three times, he has escaped, she said.

He was placed on probation after his first arrest, but he failed to report to his probation officer or attend drug treatment as ordered, she said. He was picked up and placed in a group home. But he ran away. Caught 30 days later, he was placed in another group home. The day after Thanksgiving 2009, he absconded from that facility, too. He remained at large until March, when he was arrested and caught with 100 rocks of crack cocaine. On April 13, he was found guilty and committed to the custody of DYRS until age 21 by a D.C. Superior Court judge.

The mother said her son spent only a few weeks at DYRS's New Beginnings facility in Laurel before the department placed him again in a group home. He ran off the same day, she said.

The mother said her son's father is dead. She doesn't know what to do. She said she asked DYRS not to put her son in a group home since he "rolls out" as soon as he goes in. He has serious drug and behavioral problems, and he needs treatment in a facility that he can't easily leave. DYRS, she said, ignores her pleas. Even when she sought to participate in the agency's "family team meeting" about her son, she said her son's DYRS case manager, Corey Nevels, told her that her son didn't want his mother included. She said Nevels wouldn't allow her to participate, even via phone.

I reached Nevels by phone on Wednesday, shared the mother's comments about DYRS and her son, and asked him to comment. Nevels refused to speak with me, referring me to DYRS public affairs officers. "The information being reported by The Post and other media outlets has contained many factual inaccuracies and misleading information," DYRS spokesman Reggie Sanders told me.

Since the mother said her son was still at large ("probably in Southwest where his friends hang out"), I asked the D.C. Superior Court on Thursday if DYRS had requested a custody order for his apprehension. A court official said that DYRS requested and the court issued a custody order for him on Thursday -- the day after I contacted Nevels. Another example of DYRS delay in obtaining a custody order (the agency is supposed to act the day the youth runs away).

I've written nearly 40 columns about DYRS. This week brought news that seven youths in DYRS custody have been charged with murder in 2010 and that 80 youths in the city's juvenile justice system can't be accounted for. What's new in today's column?

That's just it; there's nothing new.

Today's column will be dismissed by DYRS defenders as just another King anecdote. I contend that it illustrates what's wrong with a juvenile justice system that looks good only on paper.

DYRS cries out for investigation. But not by a blue-ribbon commission assembled by the mayor, the D.C. Council and the court, as some have suggested. Such a venture will be captured by paternalistic, progressive forces who uncritically accept any claim DYRS makes.

The juvenile justice department needs to be investigated by an agency equipped with subpoena powers, an ability to take sworn testimony, and a clear mandate to examine performance and determine the truth and falsity of the representations that DYRS makes about itself.

Don't look for any help from Mayor Adrian Fenty, who thinks DYRS knows all the answers. And Attorney General Peter Nickles? Which is he, the city's lawyer or the mayor's consigliere?

The council's Human Services Committee chairman, Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who oversees the city's juvenile justice system, is a logical choice to lead such a probe. But he can't bear being perceived as a possible critic of a "progressive" venture.

That leaves us with more of the same. That is, until a DYRS escapee cuts down another public celebrity from the "good" part of town.

kingc@washpost.com



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