Seven juveniles escaped from the District's problem-plagued Cedar Knoll detention center in Laurel in two separate incidents Thursday, a D.C. Department of Human Services spokesman said yesterday. Six of them were from a maximum-security detention home.
Late yesterday afternoon, five of the youths were still at large. A source familiar with the operation of the facility attributed the escapes to "staff negligence," while the Human Services spokesman said the escape of six juveniles was attributable to "basically a mistake made by a new employe."
The escapes come at a time when the city is spending a considerable amount of money attempting to improve the security at Cedar Knoll, including the hiring of a security consulting firm. However, several reports by outside experts have found that there is a chronic lack of supervision, which allows escapes to occur.
The city recently announced that it will close its controversial Cedar Knoll center as part of a sweeping settlement of a lawsuit charging that conditions at the District's juvenile facilities were unsafe. In the past five months, about 35 new employes have been hired at Cedar Knoll, and complaints have surfaced that many of the new staff members are inexperienced.
Department of Human Services spokesman Kenneth Jones said six youths escaped about 2 p.m. Thursday when a new employe failed to follow the proper procedure in opening double doors of the facility. "Someone was carrying out audiovisual equipment. The employe was supposed to open one door, let the person pass through, then lock it and open the next door," Jones said. "Instead, both doors were opened at the same time, and the six youths bolted through."
One of the youths was apprehended Thursday evening at his home in the District.
Another juvenile escaped Thursday after he slipped out of shackles while being transported, the spokesman said. He was later caught on the grounds of the center.
The six youths escaped from Bunch Cottage, part of what is now called the Oak Hill Annex and one of "two houses for detained residents in the maximum level of detention," said Jones. The youths are part of the "overflow population from Oak Hill," the city's maximum-security facility, said Jones. The youths were kept in a locked cottage because they had been charged with serious crimes.
While Jones would not discuss what crimes those were, he said, "We are looking for all of the youths , but we are particularly interested in one of them."
Jones said Human Services is investigating the incidents to determine what happened. "Generally two staff persons are in the area where the escapes occurred , but we have not determined yet how many staff members were present," Jones said.
Morale is low among employes at Cedar Knoll, said James Baker, the center's athletic director.
"The people they brought on were not qualified to do the job that's needed there," said Baker, who said he believes that city officials are unaware of the difficulties associated with containing the youths.
"The kids can see there is a breakdown when they hired the new staff . . . , " Baker said. "They said, 'We're going to have a field day on the rookies.' "
A source familiar with the operation of the facility said, "All of the new employes look good on paper. They have a lot of credentials and seem to want to work with kids. The problem is they are new and maybe not tuned in to the fact that any kid will try to take advantage of you if they can."
Also on Thursday, 46 members of the staff at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll asked D.C. Superior Court Judge Ricardo Urbina, the judge overseeing the settlement, that they be consulted "to express our concerns in the final decree."
Baker said the settlement "gives total control of the institution to the kids."
Also, staff members have complained that there is no fence around Cedar Knoll and that juveniles who leave without authorization do not face additional charges.
Jones, the Human Services spokesman, said such youths "go before a disciplinary committee to answer charges of escaping. If found guilty, they may be locked up in isolation for up to seven days."
Currently, 108 juveniles are in detainment at or committed to Cedar Knoll.