Less than a year after Maryland officials opened a $60 million holding facility for juvenile offenders, an independent inspection found conditions that pose "threats to the life, health and safety" of the 106 children housed there, according to a report released yesterday.
During an unannounced visit to the Baltimore facility in August, inspectors learned of two recent suicide attempts, gross staff shortages and a revolt in which young residents barricaded themselves inside and set fire to the housing unit.
One teenager tied a bedsheet to an upper-tier railing, knotted it around his neck and climbed over the side, leaving him hanging by his neck and left hand before being rescued by a lone staff member and other children standing nearby, the report said. Another resident used pieces of a desk to batter himself, leaving behind a cell "smeared with blood."
Those findings were made public yesterday in a report by Maryland's Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor.
"Just outrageous," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) in reaction to the report. "The department really needs to just dismantle the system that it's got now for holding these kids. It doesn't work."
Conditions at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center are strikingly similar to those found by federal inspectors at two of the state's older facilities -- the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County and the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore. The U.S. Department of Justice warned Maryland in April that those institutions had failed to meet even minimum constitutional standards and violated the civil rights of those housed there.
A spokeswoman for the state's Juvenile Services Department, which oversees the center, disputed some details of the report but conceded that conditions could be improved.
"It's not a perfect world, and we'd like for it to be better," LaWanda Edwards said. "But we're working on it, and we'll be working with the independent monitor to resolve these issues."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) made reform of the long-troubled juvenile justice system a key element of his 2002 campaign, promising to "find whatever money is needed -- new federal dollars, reallocated state dollars and foundation dollars -- to tackle the difficult but necessary job of saving thousands of Maryland children."
Yesterday, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor would "be the first one to tell you that the work is not done."
When it opened in Baltimore on Oct. 30 after more than a decade of planning and construction, the facility was hailed as part of that solution. It was to provide desperately needed space for youths, mostly ages 14 to 17, who had been accused but not convicted of a range of criminal offenses that typically included auto theft, simple assault and drug possession but not usually serious violent crimes.
Instead, the Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor found that the building has never had enough staff to keep even half the number of residents safe and under control. The situation is so volatile, the report says, that both public defenders and "various ministerial and volunteer groups have not been visiting the facility for fear of their own safety."
Edwards released a copy of the state's initial response to the report, which disputes the monitor's assertion that there is a shortage of working radios for the staff and describes the two attempted suicides in terms that suggest they were not life threatening.
The youth who went over the upper-tier railing with a bedsheet around his neck, the state response says, could be reached by other children standing on a table below and was therefore not in serious danger, the response says.
The severity of the second suicide attempt, which the monitor said required CPR, in fact resulted in injuries only to the boy's elbows when he hit the floor, the response says. State juvenile justice officials did not address questions by the independent monitor about the continued use of a type of bunk bed that has slots through which a child could wrap a bedsheet.
The report notes that same type of bed was used by Vanessa Salmeron, a 15-year-old at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, to hang herself in early 2002.
Salmeron's mother, Hilda Salmeron, sued the state after her daughter's death and received a $550,000 settlement in November. Her attorney, Richard F. Silber, said in part the suit was intended to prevent the state from ever putting another child at risk in that manner. He said yesterday he was astonished by the monitor's discovery that the same type of bed remains in use.
"It's inexcusable for the state to repeat the mistakes they've made in the past -- to continue to put these vulnerable kids at risk," Silber said.
Equally disturbing, said children's advocates, was the assessment by the independent monitor that there were children who went weeks without school and youths who had gained easy access to shanks and used them to commit assaults that were described as commonplace.
"To me what is really astonishing is that, after being put on notice, these conditions persist," said Sharon Rubenstein, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, which formed seven years ago to promote juvenile justice reform.
"I don't know whether to call it a horror or gross stupidity," Rubenstein said. "I think it is shocking that things could be in such disarray."