ANNAPOLIS – Juvenile justice advocates will call on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a rally here Saturday to keep what they say was a campaign promise to shutter the problem-plagued Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George’s County.
“We believe this governor can make a difference, must make a difference,” said Heather Ford, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Youth and Children. “It will take the governor to move juvenile justice forward. Juvenile justice will not happen unless these big institutions are closed.”
Continuing violence, overcrowding and allegations of neglect and abuse have plagued the institution that houses both violent and non-violent youth offenders. In recent years there have been reports of riots, rapes, suicide attempts and assaults.
A March riot left two residents hospitalized, and last month, a youth’s jaw was broken by another resident.
Advocates said the facility should be closed and replaced with a smaller one providing community-based alternative programs.
“The governor agrees in principle that serious reforms are needed and needed now,” said Henry Fawell, Ehrlich’s spokesman. “We have the right man for the job in Secretary (Kenneth) Montague . . . but we are looking to make real sustainable reforms, and that will take time.”
The day before a June rally the administration announced the closing of one of Cheltenham’s cottages, but advocates say there has been no progress made in depopulating the facility since.
In 2001, the General Assembly ordered the closure of three cottages and a staff dormitory at Cheltenham within 90 days of the opening of three new facilities, which were then in the planning stages.
The Western Maryland facility is now open; one on the lower Eastern Shore is projected to open by the end of the year and a Baltimore City center will begin accepting juveniles Oct. 30.
Lee Towers, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said two of the three cottages the General Assembly specified are already closed.
In an Oct. 15 letter, the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition urged the governor to comply with the Assembly’s closing schedule, include funds in the 2005 budget for demolition and replacement with a smaller 24-bed facility, establish an “implementation team” of professionals with experience closing institutions and place independent child protection monitors in the facility to ensure safety.
In August, the Department of Juvenile Services announced it would no longer place youths under age 12 at Cheltenham, instead sending them to a Baltimore shelter care facility for non-violent juveniles who require supervision.
Advocates say about 85 percent of Cheltenham’s population are non-violent offenders, with the majority being drug offenders, parole violators, car thieves and those pending placement.
“We are not saying that these juveniles should not be locked up,” Ford said, “but people have all agreed Cheltenham should be closed.”