For the second time in five years, political and community pressure has side-tracked the District government's plans to build a 125-bed, multimillion dollar youth detention center.
The Department of General Services (DGS), which advertised for bids in November, decided last week to cancel the project indefinitely.
"A considerable number of community groups have expressed strong opposition (and) we came to the conclusion our original decision no longer prevailed," DGS Director Sam Starobin said of the aborted project.
DGS had advertised for bids on the partially funded center with the consent of Department of Human Resources (DHR) Director Albert P. Russo and City Budget Director Comer S. Coppie. They agreed to take the action before formally asking the City Council for the additional funds necessary to complete the center. Council members criticized the tactic and suggested it was a ploy to commit the city to a project from which it could not withdraw. Russo assured the council members it was not.
Opposition to the youth center was expressed by child care advocates through an intensive letter writing and telephone campaign. The campaign included personal visits during which the opponents argued their case. They contended that the center was too big, too costly and that city-run youth institutions were already overburdened by budget and personnel cuts. Another large, costly institution, they said, would only worsen the problem.
The D.C. Coalition for Youth coordinated much of the opposition, which came from lawyers, psychologists, members of child advocacy groups and other city residents. Coalition member Mary Ann Stein spearheaded the drive.
Similar controversies have surrounded the center since it was first proposed in 1966.
Starobin said the proposed project is expected to now cost more than $8.6 million, but that figure can increase by 10 percent in 1979. Congress appropriated $6 million for the center in 1972. Additional costs for a more expensive center would have to be secured by consent of the mayor, City Council and Congress.
According to Starobin, he and the directors of the city budget and human resources offices agreed that advertising for bids was an "extraordinary action (to take) on a risk basis." They felt, however, that city-run facilities now used to confine juveniles are so "unsatisfactory" it was "urgent" that new facilities be acquired. City officials Russo and Coppie confirmed this.
Bids were sought to "expedite the (funding) process" from the City Council, explained Russo.
However, Starobin added, "It may very well be, as it has been in the past 10 years, that community opposition is such that it is not politically feasible to build the home."
Council Member Polly Shackleton, head of the City Council Committee on Human Resources and Aging, said the council will not take action on the project until DHR formally requests funding and a public hearing is held on the issue.
Shackleton further explained that DHR would need to know the cost of the project before additional funding could be considered.
Mayoral candidate Marion Barry issued a statement on the issue after receiving what his office said were dozens of calls and letters expressing opposition to the center. Letters and calls were also directed to Council Member David Clark, Shackleton and other city officials.
Barry criticized "the D.C. government's twisted priorities on wanting to spend (over) $8 million on a children's jail. I'm glad the bids have been withdrawn from this facility largely in response to intense opposition from community groups and the opposition elected officials, such as myself, were able to provide."
Barry cited shortages in education, health, recreation and other programs at the present city-run youth centers and urged that DHR take care of these problems and consider alternatives to building another large, costly institution.
"With these crying needs an expenditure of $8 millio dollars on a children's jail is a narrow-minded treatment which does not explore the universe of potential solutions," he said.
Starobin and Russo said no new request for bids will be made until the necessary funding is appropriated.
The mayor's 1979 budget initially contained the beginnings of such a request from DHR, said Coppie. DHR asked that $1.8 million be reprogrammed for the center, he said.
Coppie said the request, made last fall, was withdrawn after DGS anticipated that the amount was too low.
"Perhaps it was ill advised," said Russo of the bid process, in retrospect. "Certaintly we recognize now, unless funds are on hand we cannot proceed in the normal process of getting the appropriation."
The proposed facility would replace the Receiving Home for Children at 1000 Mount Olivet Rd. NE., said Russo. It would have a modern education and recreation center, a diagnostic center to determine where youth should be confined and private rooms to provide security and privacy for youth and workers. The present center does not have these services.
Each month more than 240 youth await final court action on some offense, said Russo. About half are placed under DHR's care by the court.
In 1966 the D.C. Crime Commission urged that the receiving home be replaced, he said. In 1972 Chief Judge Harold Greene of the D.C. Superior Court ruled the dilapidated facility an "unacceptable home substitute," and ordered that confinement there be limited to 48 hours.
Within the past year, Superior Court judges have ordered 10 to 16 youths to be held in the deteroriating facility past that 48-hour limit, said Russo. Despite these conditions, youth are held there because no satisfactory, maximum security youth facilities are available to the city.
"I feel it's a gross disservice to children (sent) to DHR for (confinement) . . ." he said.
A Superior Court judge who has handled numerous juvenile cases said a new but "smaller institution" was definitely needed to confine youth needing maximum security.
However, group homes and home detention projects that allowed youth to maintain normal lives in the community were preferred for children who did not need a secure setting, said the judge, who wished to remain anonymous.
Betsey Reveal agreed. Reveal is the city monitoring agent for the federally funded youth programs. She said "a whole continuum of services," including a maximum security center, was needed for youth in trouble. She too felt a smaller center was in order, especially in view of DHR's continued commitment to providing community based programs for youthful offenders.
"We really have to do a much more thorough needs assessment in regard to why (youth are confined in institutions), how long they're there, and how it relates to the court backlog. You have different categories (of youth) and different situations," said Reveal.