A court-appointed monitor reported yesterday that allegations of abuse by staff members have increased at the District's juvenile detention facilities and that intoxicated staff are sometimes tolerated "in the belief that 'half a counselor is better than none.' "
In a 97-page report filed in D.C. Superior Court, the monitor also said it was "rare" for staff to give "frank" accounts of inappropriate behavior by colleagues toward residents. He also said that many incidents in which staff members strike residents are never reported.
Those who did "break the code," the monitor said, "have been ostracized or harassed by their coworkers" and more often counselors "are advised by their peers to write incomplete, inaccurate or euphemistic incident reports to avoid getting into trouble."
The report represents the fourth court filing by monitor Michael K. Lewis, who was appointed last year to oversee implementation of the city's agreement to a consent decree mandating major improvements in the city's juvenile services. In his latest report, called by some his most severe, Lewis details an "erratic, and sometimes dysfunctional, compliance effort."
Lewis said "substantial progress" has been made by the city in some areas, such as improved staff and less use of leg irons and handcuffs at Oak Hill and the Annex. But in other areas, he said, the "chronic" inability of city officials "to move forward with a smoothly integrated plan has resulted in wasted effort and frustration."
Marjorie Ellis, D.C. commissioner for social services, said, "I can only say in the most general terms that such a report is not a good one, and that we're certainly in the midst of strenuously taking corrective action."
Officials have previously said they planned to hire nearly 300 employes for the three juvenile facilities: Oak Hill and the Annex (formerly known as Cedar Knoll) in Laurel and the Receiving Home in the District.
The report, which covers May 1 through Aug. 31, found, among other things:Lack of careful screening in hiring by the city's personnel department. For example, two drivers were recently hired primarily as messengers between the detention facilities and the public school system. One had his license revoked and the other was unable to drive because the car had a manual transmission. When a request was made to "send drivers who could work, the same two drivers were returned to the facility." Unnecessary school closings. On May 19, school was closed at the Annex for more than three weeks because two electrical transformers broke down. The monitor said he has been assured by the principals at Oak Hill and the Annex that the " . . . They will accept a counselor who is intoxicated, in the belief that 'half a counselor is better than none.' "
-- Michael K. Lewis
"almost arbitrary" closing of schools has been addressed. Lack of coordination with substitute teachers. Ten substitutes were hired "to work as needed" at the end of May and were to be paid only when they worked. However, the reports said the substitutes "reported every day, and were paid for every day, even during vacation." Absence of a disciplinary hearing officer. Because of staffing problems, no disciplinary hearings were held in August. Lewis attributed "a great deal of what is wrong with discipline" at the institutions to the "lack of fair and timely hearings." He said that if hearings were held at all, a student usually already had been punished, a violation of the decree. Unacceptable housing conditions. The report said that air-conditioning units either did not work or were inadequate and that staff complained of mice and roaches. Problems with filling prescriptions. During the reporting period, a fund to pay for emergency prescriptions at Peoples Drug Store ran out. In one case, a resident had a seizure while waiting five days for medicine that she was supposed to take three times a day.
Lewis reserved some of his sharpest comments, however, for the reported rise in allegations of staff misbehavior, saying he was "deeply distressed by the increase both in number and severity" of reports of abuse by staff members.
Lewis said most allegations could not be substantiated "with sufficient certainty" to warrant taking disciplinary measures, but "there is a strong sense at the institutions that many of the allegations have a factual basis." Among the allegations were complaints that counselors struck residents immobilized by other counselors or, in one case, shackled to a hospital bed and that some counselors inappropriately used choke holds or night sticks.
The Washington Post reported last month that Lewis was investigating three complaints of staff beatings of youths, including one incident involving the acting school principal at Oak Hill that also was being investigated by the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore.
Lewis said the superintendents at the institutions did not tolerate staff abuse, but were hindered by the fact that counselors, "and even supervisory staff, tend to present a united front against investigators."
As for incidents of staff drunkenness, Lewis said that "at each institution there are employes who are known to have alcohol problems." He said that although the superintendents deny that they allow staff members to work while intoxicated, one longtime employe told him that staff shortages are so acute at times "that they will accept a counselor who is intoxicated, in the belief that 'half a counselor is better than none.'"