Twelve senior staff members of the District's juvenile detention home warned D.C. social services Commissioner Audrey Rowe in a memorandum recently that "life threatening problems" persist at the facility, where there have been at least 10 suicide attempts since January.
The executive staff of the Receiving Home for Children said in the May 27 memo that the number of suicide attempts and incidents of violence in the facility might increase if steps are not taken to alleviate overcrowding.
The Receiving Home, a rundown, red brick facility in Northeast Washington, has bed space for 38 boys and girls, but has seen its population increase some nights to nearly 50, with some teen-age girls sleeping on cots in the hallway.
"Without relief we fear continued harm to staff and residents," states the memo, which was signed by Julia Scott, then superintendent of the receiving home, and Anne M. Rensberger, her deputy and currently the acting superintendent. Scott and the administrators of the city's two other juvenile facilities are on paid leave while city officials investigate possible mismanagement within the Youth Services Administration.
The memo also contends that Patricia Quann, who recently was forced out as head of the youth agency, did not adequately respond to a previous warning from her staff in January about overcrowded conditions.
Quann resigned three days after the memo to Rowe was written.
The agency is beset by legal problems, including lengthy probes by the FBI, the General Accounting Office and a federal grand jury of its overtime and contracting practices.
The agency also is the defendant in a civil suit filed by the D.C. Public Defender Service, which claims poor treatment and conditions in the youth facilities.
The suit is scheduled for trial in July.
Robert Malson, a lawyer and aide to Rowe who was appointed to replace Quann, said yesterday that he had not seen the staff memo but that overcrowding is one of his urgent priorities and that he hopes to reduce the population of the Receiving Home by Monday through the transfer of a group of boys to Cedar Knoll, a sprawling compound operated by the District in Laurel.
Malson said he had made inspection visits to Cedar Knoll and planned to reopen Edison Cottage, which will hold about 10 boys. That will enable the Receiving Home, which has space for 11 girls, to accommodate the increase in the number of detained girls, which was as high as 21 over the Memorial Day weekend.
Malson said he also has taken steps to reduce the potential for suicide attempts by ordering workers to fill in the spaces between overhead pipes and ceilings. It was through the spaces that youths were tying bedsheets, clothing and shoestrings and attempting to hang themselves.
Rowe could not be reached for comment yesterday. Quann declined to comment. The author of the memo, Rensberger, said she drafted it after a consensus was reached at a meeting of the senior staff that Quann had been unresponsive to an earlier memo, dated Jan. 13, which proposed relieving the overcrowding by transferring youths to Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll.
In the past, Quann has blamed the overcrowding on the increase in the numbers of children ordered detained by the D.C. juvenile court. In her response to her staff last January, Quann cited her efforts to have the D.C. corporation counsel's office, which prosecutes juvenile offenders, review lists of detainees in hopes of finding the "least severe" cases who could be held under strict supervision in less secure facilities, such as pretrial shelters or their own homes.
In most cases, however, the corporation counsel's office opposed such moves, citing the youths' records or the danger they posed to themselves.
The problem has led to some difficult moments in the juvenile court. Last Friday, for example, Judge Stephen Eilperin, presiding in the juvenile arraignment court of D.C. Superior Court, ordered a boy held at the Receiving Home, only to learn later that the facility was full. With the consent of the boy's attorney, Kenneth Rosenau, Eilperin ordered the youth temporarily moved to Cedar Knoll.