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Abuses reported at Hickey School;
Document has allegations of staff-youth sex, injuries

By Greg Garland
The Baltimore Sun
June 12, 2003

More than 20 cases of suspected child abuse and neglect have occurred at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County so far this year, including instances of staff allegedly having sex with youths and bringing alcohol and pornographic materials into the juvenile detention facility, according to a report by an independent monitor.

The highly critical report further revealed that documented cases of youth-on-youth assaults and other violent incidents occur at the school, on average, 2.5 times each day.

"There may be many other cases that go unreported by staff and youth for fear of retaliation," according to a May 29 report by the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, an advisory group that is part of the governor's office. The report, submitted to state officials by Philip J. Merson, was obtained by The Sun yesterday.

The Hickey School, which serves 262 troubled boys ages 14 to 17, is run by Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International, a private, Sarasota, Fla.-based contractor hired by the state.

Advocates expressed outrage yesterday at the report's findings, which follow a similar, sharply critical report about conditions at Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.

They called for the state to terminate the company's contract. "The state cannot continue to rely on this vendor to take care of Maryland's youth," said Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

Among the incidents related in the report:

On Jan. 5, staff members allegedly pulled a youth who set off the sprinkler system from his room, slammed him against a wall and allowed older youths to beat him up. State investigators charged with investigating such incidents failed to follow through and interview the youth despite prodding by the independent monitor.

On Jan. 22, a staff person incited what was labeled as a "riot" when he used a fire extinguisher and a club to threaten youths. Two of the youths were injured during the melee and taken to a hospital. The staff person's conduct was deemed "inappropriate" and he was dismissed after an investigation.

On Feb. 7, a youth who had been reported missing was found when he had a car accident in Anne Arundel County. The car he was driving was registered to a female staff member, later fired, who was alleged to be having sexual relations with the teen-ager.

On March 16, a youth who was reportedly locked in his room was found to be severely intoxicated, with a blood alcohol level of 0.25 -- more than three times the state's 0.08 percent blood alcohol level for drunken driving offenses. He said a male staff member gave him the alcohol, but investigators were unable to identify the staff member involved.

Other cases included an incident in which a youth's wrist was broken when a staff member broke up a fight between a group of youths; a student whose back was hurt when a staff member allegedly threw him against a bathroom sink; and allegations that a staff member brought in a DVD player and pornographic material to one of the units and had sex with a youth.

Sharon Rubinstein, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, said the report shows that the Hickey School, which is east of Towson, is not a safe place for youths.

"These findings are outrageous," she said. "When the boot camp scandal broke, it was called state-sanctioned child abuse. Why are these abuses continuing?"

The state's juvenile justice boot camps were shut down in 1999 after abuses by guards were exposed by The Sun. Maryland recently paid $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of young offenders. Company's response

Tom Rapone, chief operating officer for the company that runs the Hickey School, said he had not seen a copy of the independent monitor's report and could not comment in detail on specific incidents.

However, he said, monitoring has "been significantly enhanced" during the past six months. He said his company follows state rules and regulations in reporting incidents and that it takes firm disciplinary action against staff members when situations are uncovered that warrant it.

"Events take place in these types of facilities," Rapone said. "Is it a perfect world? No, but certainly we endeavor. This is a continuing process."

But advocates say they are deeply disturbed by the monitor's findings.

"The level of abuse is simply grotesque," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who is director of JJ Fair, a community-based advocacy group for children that is based in Takoma Park.

Ehrlich faulted

She faulted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for not taking the long-standing problems of Maryland's juvenile justice system more seriously and for failing to aggressively address them.

"I place the blame squarely on Gov. Ehrlich," Gurian-Sherman said. "He made juvenile justice a top campaign issue. People supported him and voted for him on his promise to fix this and all we are hearing from him is same lame excuse of it doesn't happen overnight."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, disputed that assessment.

"The evidence is clear that this is a broken system which, despite the governor's commitment to juvenile services and the safety of Maryland's children, cannot be mended overnight," DeLeaver said. "It's not an excuse; it's a simple fact."

DeLeaver said the governor has faith that former Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., appointed as secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, "is the right person in the right place to fix this very serious problem."

The independent monitor faulted the juvenile justice department for not following past recommendations to reduce cases of assault and abuse. The report said further that there has been a "lack of cooperation" between investigating entities responsible for looking into incidents of abuse involving youths in the state juvenile detention center.

Montague could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a department spokesman said he is reviewing the report on the incidents at Hickey School.

"In those cases where disciplinary action was warranted, I think you will find it was taken," said Lee Towers, the spokesman.

He also said the state is preparing to issue a request for proposals from companies to operate the juvenile detention facility. The state's contract with Correctional Services Corp./Youth Services International expires in March, he said.

But Ford of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition said large facilities such as the Hickey School present inherent problems.

"We're not saying you don't lock kids up, but you don't lock 300 kids up under one roof," Ford said. "The state needs to develop small, secure facilities for 40 kids or so in different regions."

Ford said she expects Ehrlich to honor his commitment to reform the juvenile justice system in Maryland.

"I'm going to hold him to that pledge," Ford said. "There's an opportunity here to do the right thing."

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