D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) sharply criticized operations at the city's juvenile detention facilities yesterday, citing reports of widespread escapes, staff assaults on youths and inadequate educational programs.
In another development yesterday at a committee hearing called by Crawford to discuss problems at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll, city officials indicated for the first time that the city might not be able to meet a Dec. 1 closing date for the dilapidated Cedar Knoll juvenile facility, a key component of a court-approved consent decree approved last year.
Crawford, chairman of the Human Services Committee, had called top officials with the Department of Human Services to appear at oversight hearings to explain a series of recent reports that about 25 percent of the youths assigned to Oak Hill, the city's maximum security facility for juveniles, had escaped and that a federally funded education program there was almost nonexistent for two years.
Describing a spate of problems he observed on a recent visit to the facilities in Laurel, Crawford said he could "understand why we get the negative" publicity but could not understand why District officials had not done more to solve the problems.
Crawford said that during his visit to the city's two juvenile facilities, he saw a number of "staff just sitting around doing nothing" and listened to complaints from youths that there were "no meaningful programs."
He directed some of his sharpest comments at security lapses at Oak Hill.
DHS officials said yesterday that 162 youths had escaped from the facility since last August. About half of those listed as missing failed to return from home visits, while 20 escaped from the facility and the remaining from the custody of Oak Hill staff on off-site visits.
Officials acknowledged that they were "keenly aware of many of the problems engulfing" the Youth Services Administration, but disputed Crawford's suggestion that few steps were being taken to make meaningful improvement.
Vernon Hawkins, the acting commissioner on social services, and Jesse Williams, director of the Youth Services Administration, both gave detailed presentations describing current plans, including hiring 269 additional staff members, including more security guards, and installing a sophisticated alarm system.
In addition, they said seven people, including five teachers, had been hired to staff a federally funded education program at Oak Hill that had been the subject of a highly critical federal report this summer.
Federal officials found that the program had been almost nonexistent for two years despite federal funding allocations that exceeded $200,000.
Williams also said DHS officials plan to propose legislation that would allow officials to charge juveniles with escape and allow staff to pursue youths outside the grounds of the Oak Hill juvenile detention center.
Juveniles currently cannot be charged with a criminal offense if they escape from a juvenile facility and only Maryland authorities or U.S. Park Police have jurisdiction to pursue youths once they go off the Oak Hill grounds.
Lawyers who had agreed to the court-approved settlement with the city last year reacted angrily to suggestions yesterday that the city might be backing away from its commitment to close the minimum security facility Cedar Knoll on Dec. 1 and blamed the city for taking inadequate steps to prepare for its closure.
The settlement headed off a potentially embarrassing trial into charges that youthful offenders are often beaten and subjected to unsafe conditions.
"We're very, very distressed," said Sontha Sonenberg of the Public Defender Service, which brought the class-action suit against the city along with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
Williams blamed the city's potential problem in meeting the Dec. 1 date on an unexpected surge in the number of youths ordered held by judges.
He said juvenile cases were on the decline when the decision was made to close Cedar Knoll.
Williams said he could not say "unequivocally" that the facility will shut down Dec. 1, but that he would make every effort to meet the deadline.
In another exchange, Crawford questioned city officials about reports yesterday that a court-appointed monitor was investigating three separate incidents of alleged staff assaults on residents at Oak Hill and Cedar Knoll. "I don't believe that we can or will tolerate abuse of the youth," said Crawford, who called the reports "embarrassing".
Hawkins said reports about the assaults were inaccurate, and that the staff members involved had "just cause" to use force. He declined to elaborate publicly.
In one case, the U.S. Attorney's office in Baltimore is investigating complaints that the acting school principal at Oak Hill assaulted a restrained youngster who spat on him.
In another, a key witness has said he lied to police when he said a youth who was knocked unconscious briefly started a fight with a counselor.