ANNAPOLIS – If the Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services had his way, he’d tear down the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center and rebuild Maryland’s only state-run, secure residential facility for female juvenile offenders from scratch.
In Waxter’s place, Secretary Donald DeVore envisions brand new, state-of- the-art detention facilities.
But because of budgetary constraints, DeVore said replacing Waxter isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Even if it was a possibility, a number of Waxter’s critics don’t think new, and potentially costly centers, are the way to go.
“There really isn’t (a timeframe to replace Waxter), not right now,” DeVore said.
Waxter, which is 46 years old, houses a range of girls, from those who are “committed” for serious crimes to girls “detained” for lesser offenses like truancy. This situation has led to comingling of the two populations — a violation of state law.
According to Tammy Brown, DeVore’s chief of staff, the department will receive a net cut of $12.9 million from the Board of Public Works for fiscal year 2010, about 5 percent of its roughly $242 million budget.
“I mean there’s no question that (budget cuts have) impacted us, we haven’t been held harmless,” DeVore said.
The state legislature approved a $188 million bond issue last year to build four new facilities in Maryland, but the money will be spent on new boys facilities, not Waxter.
“My guess is … we could be anywhere from eight to 10 years away from seeing a new Waxter facility, and that in my mind, is not really acceptable,” DeVore said.
Simon Powell, a budget analyst for the Department of Legislative Services, said that girls receive a small portion of the department’s budget because they are such a small part of the overall juvenile population.
When the department is able to replace Waxter, DeVore envisions one or two smaller, short-term detention centers for girls who are pre-adjudication or have been “detained” for minor offenses. Girls who have been “committed” for more serious crimes would be housed in a separate facility.
Ideally these facilities would be close to the girls’ homes so that family visits would be easier.
But Waxter is not likely to be replaced for years. In the meantime, DeVore said the department will have to make the best of a bad situation, and he believes that conditions have gotten better at Waxter. In particular, DeVore touts the implementation of female-specific treatment models.
DeVore said there has been a growing national recognition that girls need to be rehabilitated differently than boys. He also said that juvenile experts have realized they have to treat the childhood trauma that so many detained girls, and boys, experience in their formative years.
“The treatment says girls have different needs than boys do, and those needs need to be recognized and treated within the context of the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system as well,” he said. “We realized we have to treat trauma from early years or they are never going to get better.”
Though DeVore pushes the treatment programs he has helped to install, he said that Waxter’s physical facility limits their effectiveness.
“It’s important for girls that what you say about them is mirrored in where you treat them, and so the physical facilities should be as progressive as the manner of the kind of treatment (that you give them),” he said. “And at Waxter, when you walk into the facility, it sort of doesn’t strike you like that. It strikes you like something between a hospital and a jail. That’s the way it feels to me.”
Claudia Wright, of the Attorney General’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, said the physical plant is just one of the problems with the treatment programs at Waxter. Specifically, she said the programs are ill-defined and not enough of the staff have completed the necessary program training.
“The problem is that they’re not dealing with the fundamental issues, training has not become institutionalized,” Wright said.
DeVore refutes these claims. He said that a significant portion of the staff at Waxter has received gender-responsive training.
“We really wanted all of our workers to understand the nomenclature of what this was, and how we as a department were going to respond to that,” DeVore said. “That’s one area where we went all out, on that training, to make sure that people get exposure to that, and it is pretty good training.”
But according to data provided by the department, only about one-third of Waxter’s 78 staff members have completed the gender-responsive training.
During a tour in September, the facility’s superintendent, Johnitha McNair, who started in May, said she had not received the training.
Brown said that when McNair became superintendent she brought new staff members with her, and this partially accounted for the training rate.
“The training is ongoing,” Brown said. “The staff that hasn’t had it will be targeted for the upcoming training.”
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, who sits on the Joint Oversight Committee on the Department of Juvenile Services, expressed concern about the situation at Waxter.
“It obviously bears looking into from our perspective,” he said. “If the facilities are as bad as they were for the boys five years ago, the budget ought not to be the thing that keeps us from fixing it. There’s no reason why we should be behind in providing girls the care boys are getting.”