It’s a time-honored tradition of local government: a somewhat aloof director of a troubled city agency resigns, declaring success in bringing about needed reforms, and eventually a straight-talking replacement comes along and pledges transparency in completing the unfinished job.
And so it is that former D.C. Deputy Attorney General Robert Hildum comes to the interim directors job at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) with plenty left to fix but, in an election year when the incumbent who appointed him was unseated, less than a clear mandate for change.
Not surprisingly then, when Mr. Hildum agreed recently to an on-the-record interview with The Washington Times, he came across as part truth-teller and part job applicant, with equal doses of vision and humility about what his future holds.
Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray declined to answer detailed questions about his specific plans for DYRS reform or Mr. Hildum’s job security, but in an e-mailed statement offered: “I believe its time for an overhaul of the Districts juvenile justice and rehabilitation system so that our youth are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to receive the wrap-around services they need to make their rehabilitation successful.”
A trusted deputy of controversial Attorney General Peter J. Nickles, and a former prosecutor who sees the benefits of both the carrot and the stick in reforming juveniles, Mr. Hildum quickly was tagged by the local media as a jail-happy lawman who was coming to lock up the citys youth - a label he disputes.
And while he hesitated to openly criticize former DYRS director Vincent N. Schiraldi, a nationally known advocate for compassionate juvenile justice reform, he pulled few punches in criticizing the state of the agency that Mr. Schiraldi left behind.
“I dont want to bash my predecessor,” Mr. Hildum said, after a two-hour interview in which he excoriated DYRS for “lack of administrative management and oversight,” and for conditions that he finds “distressing.”
Mr. Hildum, the architect of the citys exit plan for the 1985 Jerry M. case that placed DYRS under a court monitor, was less direct when asked if he would hold poor managers accountable, or confront shoddy work or misconduct among rank-and-file corrections and social workers.
“Id like to,” he said.
Perhaps the most delicate issue he faces is morale at the 600-employee agency. He said he recognizes that case managers feel overworked and that “they feel like they have no voice.”
Last week, Mr. Hildum took the unusual step of sending out an agencywide memo acknowledging what he described as “yet another tragedy” after the death of a youth in DYRS custody: “I wanted you to know that I recognize and appreciate your continued and constant service to our youth, and I ask that you continue to work hard and tirelessly as we continue to improve our agency.”
At the same time, with 600 employees and 900 kids in its custody - 200 of whom are being supervised in other states - Mr. Hildum is bothered by the notion that there still are not enough “eyes on the kids.” He is concerned that managers also could feel under siege, if the perception becomes that DYRS is “top heavy” and in need of a managerial housecleaning.
“Its a classic bureaucratic dilemma,” he said. “I dont know how to rectify it yet.”
Tasha Williams, who represents juvenile correctional workers, said her union is concerned about whether Mr. Hildum will address perceptions that weak managers push blame for bad outcomes on an overburdened staff. “What does he see about the leadership at DYRS?” she said. “What is his perspective on what changes are needed?”
American Federation of Government Employees 14th District National Vice President Dwight Bowman said recently DYRS has suffered from too much turnover at the top, and his primary concern is that Mr. Gray reach out to his members. “I want the man to understand what we see,” he said. “These kids are building a culture that is separate from ours in terms of their accepted norms of violence.”View Entire Story
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Jeffrey Anderson is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Matthew Cella is The Washington Times’ Metro editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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