ANNAPOLIS – Following the death last week of a young man in custody, juvenile justice advocates pressured Maryland lawmakers Tuesday for stronger legislative oversight of the Department of Juvenile Services.
“There is no excuse for not keeping kids safe,” Stacy Gurian-Sherman, executive director of Juvenile Justice Family Advocacy Initiative and Resources, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It doesn’t happen tomorrow, it doesn’t happen yesterday, it happens today.”
Isaiah Simmons III, 17, suffered a fatal heart attack Jan. 23 after being restrained by staff at Bowling Brook Preparatory School in Carroll County. His death has again raised questions about state law governing privately run facilities, the training required of their staff and the way the state monitors and regulates such programs.
The county sheriff’s office is investigating the incident in which at least four youths have independently told lawyers that they watched staff members sit on Simmons for three hours until he lost consciousness and later died.
The advocates, which included representatives of juvenile justice and family groups, religious representatives, the state public defender, parents and teens, highlighted what they said was “blatant” mistreatment of children in the system.
They said both state and private facilities for juveniles are dilapidated and staffed by people who are under-trained and unqualified. They asked that more authority be given to the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit (JJM) a state office created six years ago to oversee the staff operations and facilities operated by the department.
“From its inception, the JJM reported problems relating to overcrowding, understaffing, excessive use of isolation, incidents of child abuse, and insufficient suicide prevention policies,” said Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children and Youth. “The latest JJM report, nearly six years later, shows that many of these problems remain unresolved.”
Sherman even went as far as to call for a major overhaul of the department.
“Every single Department of Juvenile Services high-ranking administrator should be fired,” she said during her emotional and, at times, fiery testimony. “Period. End of story. Show them to the door.”
There are no national standards for qualifications or recommended training for youth workers at juvenile facilities and minimum education standards, restraining methods and the type and length of training of youth supervisors are all left to state governments. According to Heisner and others, staffing at the state’s juvenile facilities is essentially composed of guards who hold high school degrees, and whose primary responsibilities revolve around supervision and breaking up fights.
The group also said that many of the necessary tools to reform the system were in place, but they had not yet been implemented. Jim McComb cited what he called a “long list” of legislation passed in recent years – such as last year’s Senate bill that allocated $10 million in funding to at-risk youth prevention and diversion programs – which have yet to be adequately enforced.
“I’m frankly disheartened,” said McComb, the executive director of Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. “At one point in time I was happy to get those pens you get when the governor signs a bill. Now they just go in the trash heap.”
McComb also said the adoption of StateStat, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed statewide agency auditing system, would fit in well with their goal to better monitor the juvenile services system.
The death at Bowling Brook, a state-licensed facility which currently houses 170 youths from several states, is only the latest example of mistreatment, the group said. The Department of Juvenile Services is seeking to have the approximately 74 Maryland youths at the facility removed, said Michael R. Morrissette, the state’s deputy public defender.
Sherman and others referred to past reports the state’s monitoring unit had released about poor conditions and abuse at the Charles H. Hickey, Jr. School, the Cheltenham Youth Facility and Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center.
“I’m appalled at what I’m hearing,” said Sen. Anthony C. Muse, D-Prince George’s, to Sherman, after hearing her describe Noyes students who were beaten in the groin by school staff, “deplorable” conditions in the multiple facilities she has visited and the 52 suicide incidents at Hickey in 2005. “If what you’re saying is true,” Muse said, “then I’m with you.”