The wind blew cold and hard between the tombstones of the cemetery in Aspen Hill, knocking over the pots of plastic flowers around Vanessa Salmeron's grave and muffling the sobs of her mother and sister, who were there for their daily visit.

It has been almost a year since Vanessa, a slender 15-year-old with amber hair, hanged herself from her bunk bed at a juvenile detention center in Laurel. Her death, one of two suicides last year at state-licensed centers for young offenders, helped trigger Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign vow to overhaul the Department of Juvenile Justice -- historically one of the state's most troubled agencies.

Ehrlich (R) is promising what he calls "a new era of hope" for a system that has "suffered failure after failure after failure." During a budget year in which the state faces a $1.2 billion deficit, he has proposed an additional $13.4 million for the department that serves more than 50,000 juveniles. Ehrlich has also appointed former delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who was one of the House's strongest child advocates, as the department's new secretary. The governor even wants to rename the agency the Department of Juvenile Services, underscoring his contention that the state gives up on too many young people, incarcerating them when what they really need is help.

But the optimism of some lawmakers, long dismayed at the sometimes squalid and brutal conditions in some of the state's juvenile facilities, is tempered by years of what Del. Carmen Amedori (R-Carroll) called "horror stories."

"You've inherited a terrible mess," she told Montague last month after he briefed the House Judiciary Committee on the changes that are planned.

The mess has spurred a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, focusing on complaints about the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham youth detention center in Prince George's County, where there were reports of beatings and a teenager impregnated by a staff member.

A state investigation last year revealed a "Saturday morning fight club" at the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, in which staff members promoted brawls between juveniles. Investigations also found that several children had been taken to the hospital with injuries caused by staff members. The center has since been closed, and the department is considering reopening it as a mental health and substance abuse treatment facility.

And in 2000, the state closed its juvenile boot camps after the Baltimore Sun reported that guards routinely beat young inmates.

Beyond the individual episodes of brutality, child advocates say, the department needs broader systemic changes that won't come easily.

"The culture in the department has been so damnable for a very long time," said James P. McComb, a lobbyist with the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. "It's a culture of low expectations. It's a culture of acceptance of failure. It's a culture that defends the status quo and opposes change."

On its Web site, the department insists that it has been "actively implementing comprehensive reforms at an incredible rate" over the past few years. Those include expanded mental health services, more support for children after their release, and the creation of an office of independent monitors to survey treatment and conditions at state facilities.

But Ehrlich has insisted that those changes don't go far enough. And during Montague's briefing to the House Judiciary Committee, he pledged to create a "new paradigm" for the department and said he has Ehrlich's full support.

During his campaign, the governor vowed to continue to scale down the state's larger juvenile detention centers and replace them with smaller facilities. He wants to increase staffing to reduce case managers' workloads. And he plans to start a prison for youths sentenced for adult crimes.

"We must stress early diversion initiatives," he said during his State of the State address last month. "We need to stop routinely condemning so many young offenders to the adult criminal justice system through incarceration and neglect."

In his departmental budget, Ehrlich has allocated $500,000 to create an office of the assistant secretary for minority justice services, which would identify and remedy any racial bias in the system. One survey, in 1999, found that 64 percent of the children in confinement were black, even though blacks make up only 32 percent of the state's population.

The governor plans to spend an additional $8.4 million to educate juveniles and to require the State Department of Education to take over the curriculum at the the Hickey school.

He also plans to institute juvenile drug courts, which favor treatment rather than confinement, and increase training for suicide prevention. A 2001 survey by the Maryland Mental Health Coalition found that 10 percent of those in Maryland's juvenile justice system had attempted suicide at least once.

Jennifer McLarin tried to kill herself twice and threatened to do so another time, according to a state report. But despite her depression, she was sent to a group home in Wheaton that was "neither capable nor suited to provide a therapeutic environment for children with severe mental illness," according to an investigation into the 14-year-old's death.

Even though the group home pleaded with state social workers to move her to a more suitable environment, McLarin was kept at the home. Last April, she went into her room and hanged herself with a scarf.

The previous month, Vanessa Salmeron told a staff member at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel that she wanted to kill herself, according to a state investigation. The staffer wrote "Salmeron making suicidal threats" in the center's logbook. But that person told no one, the investigation found.

A few hours later, another supervisor went to take Vanessa and her roommate to their evening shower. As she entered their room, she told investigators, she saw Vanessa sitting on the floor, her back to the door, her head resting on the mattress of the lower bunk bed.

The supervisor called Vanessa's name, according to a state report, but Vanessa didn't move. When the supervisor moved closer, she saw that Vanessa has hanging from the top bunk with a black boot lace tied around her neck. Her feet were spread out on the floor, and her backside was dangling several inches off the ground.

The roommate, who had been in the top bunk reading, told investigators that she didn't hear or feel anything unusual.

Last month, Vanessa's family sued the state, claiming that the staff at Waxter demonstrated a "conscious indifference and disregard for Vanessa's life, safety and serious medical needs." Lee Towers, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, would not comment on the suit.

It has been about 10 months since Vanessa's death, and family members still find themselves unable to shed their routine of grief: the daily trips to the cemetery, the prayers before bedtime. Hilda Salmeron still washes her daughter's clothes every week, folding them neatly and then putting them back in the drawers.

What Vanessa needed, they said, was help, not confinement.

According to her sister, Roxana Cruz, Vanessa was gang-raped at age 12 by teenagers at a party in Northwest Washington. She had been drinking and fell asleep on a couch. When she awoke, several boys were holding her down while another raped her, Cruz said.

After that, Vanessa started drinking more. Sometimes she wouldn't come home, and when she did, she was often drunk. She started skipping school and exploded into violence a couple of times, throwing picture frames, pounding her fists against the wall.

The drinking worsened. When she stole the family car, her mother called police. The judge ordered Vanessa to stay at home except for school. But after missing curfew one night, she was ordered to a detention center.

The collage of pictures on Cruz's living room wall recall happier times: Vanessa as a baby in yellow pajamas, on the bed holding a Barbie doll, at her confirmation wearing white, as a bridesmaid in her sister's wedding.

In the center of the room is a painting of Vanessa. She is holding a bouquet of flowers and wearing a pink dress, the one she was buried in. Cruz had the artist paint the picture based on photos taken at Vanessa's wake.

Cruz keeps the photos in an envelope tucked away in a desk drawer. She hasn't yet been able to look at them.

Roxana Cruz, left, and mother Hilda Salmeron visit Vanessa's grave in Aspen Hill. Vanessa's family has sued the state.Vanessa Salmeron killed herself at age 15. She had warned staffers at the group home she was in.