ANNAPOLIS – After 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons died in 2007 while being restrained by staff at the now-closed Bowling Brook Preparatory Academy, a private reformatory school in Carroll County, Maryland made immediate changes to its juvenile justice system.
The state allocated $200 million for the construction of new youth detention and treatment facilities, and issued new regulations on the types of restraints to be used on juveniles.
But in spite of those efforts to reform the state’s troubled juvenile justice system, the number of injuries in these facilities has spiked within the past year, the Capital News Service found. Overall incidents, including restraints and assaults in the juvenile facilities also increased this year.
The Department of Juvenile Services attributes the spike in injuries and incidents at the facilities to better reporting techniques, but juvenile justice advocates are calling for a more intensive investigation.
In one case, following a July 2008 group disturbance in which youth at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center barricaded themselves inside of an office, destroyed furniture and smoked cigarettes, the state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit investigation found that three youths made statements indicating potential abuse after being restrained by staff.
“Further, in statements of youth involved in the incident that were taken on July 29, one youth stated, `… I seen staff take (a youth) into the restroom and when he came out he had cuffs on and blood running down his face,'” according to the monitor’s special report.
In the most recent quarterly report about Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center, a state-owned and operated detention facility in Montgomery County, the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit found that two juveniles had to receive medical treatment for a fractured jaw and a concussion after an incident.
From January to October 2007, there were 1,299 reported injuries in Maryland’s state-run and privately-operated juvenile facilities, according to the most recent data available on StateStat, the state’s statistics-based government management program that was implemented in early 2007. From January to October 2008, the Department of Juvenile Services reported 2,447 injuries in its facilities, an 88 percent increase from the previous year.
“There may be a large increase because of a lack of reporting prior to this year,” said Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman with the Department of Juvenile Services. “We’ve done extensive training on reporting requirements since then.”
Maryland juvenile centers report all injuries on a severity rating scale, ranging from 1 (no visible injuries or pain) to 6 (death as a result of an injury). Injuries are classified as incident-related (assaults) or non-incident related (sports).
“An injury could be anything, from something that requires a Band-Aid to a broken bone,” Brown said.
The publicly available database does not include the type of injury that was sustained or the severity rating of the injuries. Capital News Service was unable to obtain the breakdown of injuries according to severity and classification.
Incidents within the facilities have also increased. During January to October 2007, there were 5,798 incidents. During January to October 2008, there were 6,846 incidents, an 18 percent increase.
Incidents are classified as anything from poking another kid to something more serious, Brown said.
The department classifies incidents as either critical (sexual assault, child abuse or escape) or reportable (allegations of abuse, physical restraints and youth-on-youth violence).
The total number of reported incidents is provisional and subject to change, according to the information in the database.
More rigorous reporting could be a reason for the surge of incidents and injuries, but Marlana Valdez, director of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, said it’s irresponsible to attribute the increase solely to improved reporting techniques.
“It’s essential to pinpoint the cause and not to assert a cause. Improved reporting is reason for an uptick, but there needs to be documented support for that. It’s dangerous to just assert that its improved training,” Valdez said. “I’m baffled by it. We’re talking about safety, and you have to look behind the data to find a lot of the reasons.”
The Department of Juvenile Services maintains that it keeps a close eye on any issues that may occur in its facilities.
“We have a quality assurance unit that does evaluations all the time, investigators and independent monitors, as well as children advocates that randomly talk to the kids,” Brown said.
But other advocates believe staff shortages and over-population in the facilities play a role in the increase of injuries and incidents.
“I’m aware that there has been an increase in the number of incidents and injuries, and this has been another example of one of the department’s chronic problems,” said Angela Conyers Johnese, director of juvenile justice with the Advocates of Children and Youth. “Whenever you see increases like this, they can come from a number of things, including over-population and staff shortages in the facilities. There are a lot of things that should be done to ensure the safety of the juveniles.”
Steven H. Heisler, an attorney representing Isaiah Simmons’ family, said he’s surprised about the increase of incidents and injuries, especially in light of Simmons’ death.
“It’s something that has to be probed. It’s problematic … and if the kids or students are there, their safety is paramount,” Heisler said. “This is not the direction we want to be going in.”
The data from the Department of Juvenile Services can be found at http://www.djs.state.md.us/.