ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers anxious to put an end to highly publicized instances of child abuse in Maryland’s juvenile justice system will likely require the Juvenile Justice Department to maintain an independent monitor.
The House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill Friday that would set in law an oversight agreement the Department of Juvenile Justice formed a year and a half ago with the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families.
Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, said the bill should also make it through his committee.
Under the agreement, monitors from the governor’s office report ongoing problems in youth detention centers.
The idea of a monitor has been discussed in the State House for years. It’s died twice before.
This year’s difference is a push from Department Secretary Bishop Robinson, a respected state government veteran, who this session has supported making the independent monitor already created by the governor’s office a legal entity.
Robinson, who once said he would resign if an oversight commission were created, is now amenable to it.
“The Department of Juvenile Justice has in place an unparalleled system of oversight monitoring and evaluation. No other department in the state of Maryland has such accountability,” Robinson said. “I support professional oversight.”
The committee held another bill sponsored by Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, to create an independent commission staffed by government employees and citizens.
“Here we have organized brutality,” Montague said. “It tends to make us ashamed of this system. It is barbaric and I don’t use that term lightly.”
Robinson and Bobbie A. Kirkland, special secretary for the Governor’s Office for Children, Youth and Families, said the existing monitor is sufficient.
“We have a ways to go and I think everyone would acknowledge that,” Kirkland said. “Adding another layer of oversight would not provide us with more oversight. This would duplicate efforts already underway.”
Within the last year, the existing monitor has found problems and requested changes, said Ralph Thomas, Independent Juvenile Justice monitoring office director.
The department lacks a comprehensive suicide procedure, has problems with how child abuse allegations are handled and needs more mental health services, monitors found.
Members of the General Assembly both praised Robinson and expressed concern about his department’s highly publicized instances of child abuse at hearings held this week.
“The department could not accurately report the number of the incidents at (detention centers). Some of these numbers are still in question,” said Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll, Senate sponsor of the bill creating a new monitor. “The secretary is a very honorable person. I don’t think there is anyone finer or more competent to lead this department.”
Maryland’s juvenile justice system has been marred by episodes of child abuse including a “fight club” at one detention center, where counselors encouraged teens to fist fight. A series of articles in The Sun of Baltimore documented this and other abuses, including a guard punching a teen in the mouth. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have said “violence will not be tolerated” in the juvenile justice system. They ordered the state’s boot camps closed after allegations of abuse. And in December 2001 Townsend ordered Victor Cullen Academy — the site of many of the child abuse complaints — downsized. – 30 – CNS-3-1-02