CHELTENHAM — The scene at Cheltenham Youth Facility is peaceful on this bright April morning. A small group of predominantly African-American and Latino youth decked out in white T-shirts and royal blue sweatpants and are joking with each other in the gym while working on their crossover dribbling skills.
They smiled and appeared to be in good spirits.
But that’s not the picture typically painted of the juvenile detention facility in Prince George’s County. A series of violent incidents and assaults, sometimes with guards involved, have plagued Cheltenham. But the sunny April day is illustrative of the hope Maryland officials have put into new laws and planned changes that they’re optimistic will make Cheltenham a better place.
A U.S. Department of Justice Study released April 9 of Maryland’s juvenile justice system paints both Cheltenham and Charles R. Hickey School in Baltimore County as frightful places: abusive treatment by guards, endemic youth-on-youth violence, inadequate incident reporting, poor personnel procedures that allowed guards with felony convictions to be hired and a disconcerting lack of quality mental health care for the youth.
“It (youth detention) has always been urgent. The report makes it more obvious,” said Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, Judicial Proceedings chairman and a sponsor of reform legislation. “It really is an emergency — unless some of these practices or omissions are corrected, somebody can lose his life.”
In January, Maryland State Police filed criminal assault charges against four Cheltenham staff members after they put a youth into a headlock so that other guards could punch and kick the teenager, the Justice Department study found. In March 2003, a youth at Cheltenham was involved in an altercation with a staff member at school, and during the same month there was a riot at Cheltenham. The study lists numerous other problems.
The most disturbing aspects of the report, Frosh said, include inadequate suicide prevention. Many youth offenders are traumatized because of the 2.5 incidents of assault per day.
The study was just the latest rationale for reform. Earlier this year, Maryland legislators passed comprehensive legislation, reducing populations at Cheltenham and consolidating facilities. In addition, they approved establishing an Education Department for youth offenders and mandated a 10-year study of juvenile facilities.
Frosh said he hopes the new actions will improve conditions, but more work must be done to provide adequate drug treatment and adequate psychological testing.
Kenneth Montague, Department of Juvenile Services secretary, said the report is not inaccurate, but is a benchmark for a period of time where children were not adequately cared for.
“Any time a child is hurt, it is problematic,” Montague said, calling the report disturbing and the incidents cited as the reason Gov. Robert Ehrlich has called for change.
“I’ve known about the problem for 16 years in the Legislature,” the former delegate said. “Now is the time to confront the issues.”
Montague had already begun to impose a plan of change on Maryland’s youth facilities.
Cheltenham’s population has gradually been reduced from more than 300 teenagers between 2001-2002, to 150 around Jan. 1, 2003, and now to 89, with a goal of moving toward a more manageable 48 students, according to LaWanda Edwards, DJS spokesperson.
In addition, three newly-opened facilities should alleviate some of the burden felt by Cheltenham, Edwards said. The three new facilities, for youth under 21, are the state-of-the-art, $60 million Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center, the Western Maryland Children’s Center in Hagerstown and the Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury.
That’s not enough, says at least one advocate.
“I think Cheltenham is still in serious disarray. They’ve tried to downsize, but until it’s closed, there is still a negative mindset, and I don’t think the leadership (DJS) is 100 percent committed to helping the young people housed there to reform their lives,” said Cameron Miles, the community outreach director for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.
Changing the system is going to be a lengthy process, said Ehrlich, because it’s failed to change with the times.
The system was built to deal with more innocuous youth offenders, who may have committed some minor vandalism.
“We have a system that was designed to deal with Eddie Haskell and smoking in the boy’s room,” said Ehrlich. “Now, you’re talking about major drug dealers with guns.” Haskell was a young troublemaker from the old television series “Leave it to Beaver.”
Now more than 50 to 70 percent of youth offenders have either mental health issues or substance abuse problems, Edwards said.
And Montague said the detainees are “often damaged, come from dysfunctional families, and essentially have been raised in the streets.”
Changes cannot come fast enough.
“I haven’t seen any major infusion of resources to take care of the problem,” said Frosh. “The secretary is fighting with one arm behind his back, this has got to be turned around quickly.”
Delegate Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, also praised Montague, but said more must be done.
“Any time you have kids that are that troubled, we are structurally set up for failure, Cheltenham has had hundreds of kids and troubled youth,” Zirkin said.
Heather Ford, the director of Juvenile Justice at Advocates for Children, said the state can’t take a Band-Aid approach to improving facilities like Cheltenham. At one point, the situation at Cheltenham became so flagrantly dangerous that the State Police were called in to monitor the situation. Cheltenham needs to be razed, she said.
Guards are ill-equipped and underpaid, Ford said, and she said she doubts the children housed there go to school for five hours a day, as been maintained by Cheltenham’s superintendent.
Maryland is looking to Missouri for a model for its system. Missouri’s juvenile detention system is known for having smaller facilities, a positive peer culture and guards who have bachelor’s degrees, instead of GEDs.
Montague still takes an optimistic view of what can be done to reform the Cheltenham facility and the rest of the juvenile detention facilities.
“We’re making a lot of progress. We have many new initiatives. We’ve downsized Cheltenham to less than half than what it was. We’re opening up the new facilities, and improving the conditions under which kids are retained, there is a net reduction of kids,” Montague said. “We also have alternatives to secure detention, including evening reporting centers in Prince George’s County and Baltimore.”
Back in Cheltenham’s gym, a 14-year-old Prince George’s car thief wants to get out of Cheltenham as soon as possible.
The food is nasty, there are too many restrictions and he resents being told when he’s allowed to go to the bathroom. While his complaints weren’t at the level of the study, it’s clear detention is not a place he wants to be.
“I can’t wait until I go home.”