Maryland Public Defender Nancy S. Forster has asked a judge to close the state's new juvenile detention facility or order immediate improvements there, citing "systemic" violence and allegations that workers have induced young residents to fight one another.
The petition, filed in the juvenile division of Baltimore Circuit Court, calls conditions at the $60 million Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center "unsafe and inhumane." It describes at least one undisclosed suicide attempt at the pretrial facility, underscoring a concern raised last month by independent monitors.
Affidavits attached to the petition level new allegations of misconduct at the troubled center, which opened less than a year ago. One teenager said staff members "start fights by paying kids with cigarettes . . . to fight other kids." Another said he needed four stitches after being punched in the face by a staff member. A third said staff members "would bring in marijuana for kids to smoke."
"There is a full-blown emergency here," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee. "The ship is sinking, and they're bailing it with a sieve. I think it calls for drastic measures."
Although a protective order shrouded the case in secrecy until recently, Forster filed the petition Sept. 22. It asked that the judge order improvements or remove the 67 "John Doe" residents, which apparently represented all the children then at the facility. Forster did not return calls seeking comment late yesterday.
Judge Martin P. Welch has scheduled a hearing for one week from today.
LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Services Department, which operates the facility, declined to comment yesterday, citing the privacy requirements of juvenile cases.
After answering a legislative committee's questions about conditions at the center Tuesday, the department's secretary, Kenneth C. Montague Jr., said: "We're trying. This isn't going to be solved overnight."
The center opened last Oct. 30 after more than a decade of planning and construction. It was intended to provide desperately needed space for boys, mostly 14 to 17, awaiting trial on offenses that typically included auto theft, simple assault and drug possession.
The Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor contends in a report issued last month that the building has never had enough staff to keep even half of its then 106 residents safe and under control. The situation is so volatile, the report says, that public defenders and "various ministerial and volunteer groups have not been visiting the facility for fear of their own safety."
Advocates for juvenile justice reform in Maryland said the public defender's petition not only presents startling new examples of problems at the Baltimore facility, but it also offers damning evidence that state officials failed to address repeated warnings about the trouble there.
Juvenile Services officials already have acknowledged that Phyllis D.K. Hildreth, the center's former director, sent increasingly urgent memos pleading for more staff before resigning over the deteriorating conditions in June.
The petition says that at the same time, Stephen E. Harris, then the state's public defender, sent a letter notifying Montague "of the crisis" involving staffing shortages and dangerous conditions.
Forster, Harris's replacement, sent a second letter Aug. 13, urging Montague to respond to the problem because it "posed grave concerns to the health and safety of the children and staff at the center."
Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said there is no evidence the department took urgent action until Sept. 14, after the independent monitor's findings were reported.
"I just find that inexcusable," Heisner said. "There was absolutely no sense of urgency here until they faced public embarrassment."
The petition also bolsters the independent monitor's assertions that the staff failed to address adequately the suicide risk among some teenagers there.
The monitor's report describes two suicide attempts over the summer. In an earlier interview, Montague disputed the assertion that there had been suicide attempts that resulted in injuries.
The public defender's petition says an attempt in August required that a child undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It reported an additional attempt the next month in which a teenager who was supposed to be under direct supervision slipped away and drank from a bottle of peroxide.
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."
Jervis S. Finney, the governor's chief legal counsel, declined to comment on the petition yesterday, but he reiterated the administration's commitment to improving treatment of accused juveniles. After the release of the independent monitor's report, Montague reassigned six top managers in the Baltimore center and moved a number of teenagers to other facilities.
"It was dealt with as the near crisis that it was," Finney said.