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Sidebar to Part 3: DYRS chief sees self as ‘part of solution’

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2010

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."

Mr. Bowman added that to replace Mr. Hildum would result in another reorganization and a shifting of agency priorities. "A new person would want to put their own stamp on it," he said.

And D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, chairman of the committee that has oversight of DYRS, likened the agency to the D.C. Public Schools and its former chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee.

"DYRS is in a state of overhaul," he said. "Vinnie was the turnaround guy. He blew the place up and the staff was in revolt, same as with Michelle Rhee and the teachers.

"Now you need a manager to run the place."

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier is a fan of Mr. Hildum.

"I have a fabulous relationship with Rob [Hildum]," Chief Lanier said. "Not as fabulous with Vinnie. We had different views on juvenile justice."

Above all, Mr. Hildum says he wants a chance to tackle DYRS.

"When I was in the attorney generals office, if we criticized DYRS the attitude was, let him take a snap, see how easy it is," he said. "Now I'm wearing the jersey."

In the past, Mr. Hildum said he liked to be behind the scenes doing the work, but that does not mean he favors a cautious, bureaucratic approach. "I want to give case managers the freedom to exercise judgment, and to make mistakes as long as they are doing everything they can do," he said. "But if the work is sloppy, or there is a bad outcome, then there has to be a review. Id like that to be used as a means of offering guidance."

He also offered a window into what kind of person he is. Despite a stellar resume and a high-profile, if potentially temporary, Cabinet appointment, Mr. Hildum said he worries about what his next job would be, having left the AGs office to take the helm at DYRS. Certainly had Adrian M. Fenty won the election, Mr. Hildums job would be more secure.

Yet he said he is looking forward to sitting down with Mr. Gray and "talking to him and telling him what I've seen."

"I'd really like to continue being part of the solution," he said.

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