Recent violence at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel illustrates a fundamental problem with the District's approach to juvenile offenders placed in residential treatment facilities, where "the youths are the boss" and "every kid knows this and acts accordingly," D.C. Council member Jim Graham said on Saturday.
"I'm not satisfied with what is going on here," said Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Human Services. "This is like a rest home for young thugs."
Mr. Graham directed his comments to Neil A. Stanley, the acting director of the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), who provided lengthy testimony on the agency's efforts to strike "a better balance" between rehabilitation and discipline of young offenders.
Mr. Stanley laid out a long list of initiatives to improve incident reporting, treat substance abuse and reduce recidivism. He also touted collaboration with the Metropolitan Police Department and deputy mayors for human services and public safety.
"I firmly believe that our agency must do better," Mr. Stanley said. "We must do better for our youth, we must do better for our staff, and we must do better for the public."
Mr. Graham said he craved substance and assurance that a reportedly lax atmosphere at New Beginnings would be replaced with a system of consequences for violent acts.
"Is there a problem or not?" Mr. Graham asked, pointedly. "Speak to me plainly."
"Yes, there's a problem," Mr. Stanley said, noting their views are "not too far apart."
Mr. Stanley assured the committee that law enforcement will be contacted in response to any serious incidents at DYRS facilities.
Mr. Graham repeatedly challenged Mr. Stanley, who still awaits confirmation in the wake of escapes from New Beginnings and a facilty in South Carolina, about assaults on officers and reports that facility doors at New Beginnings are so weak that youths can kick them down at will. Mounting concerns come on the cusp of summer months, when violent crime and gang tensions among D.C. youth tend to rise.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray provides $107 million for DYRS in his fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, an 18 percent increase from this year. The mayor said he doled out $16.7 million in additional funds to account for an increase in committed youth.
Although Saturday's meet-up was scheduled as a budget hearing, early testimony featured little talk of dollars and cents. Rather, it provided a window into internal frictions at DYRS and the characters and circumstances surrounding the recent escapes.
Mr. Graham delved into the April 18 incident involving Treyvon Cortez Carey, who severely beat a corrections officer at New Beginnings, found a ladder to hop the razor wire fence and drove the officer's car to the Barry Farm area of Southeast.
Two days later, four D.C. wards ran off from a residential treatment facility in South Carolina. Three were apprehended the next morning; the fourth, Delonte Parker, was found a week later outside a CVS store in Laurel.
The incidents prompted Mr. Graham to question the wisdom of placing D.C.'s young offenders out of state, noting the lack of a support network when extra miles are placed between them and their homes.
Delonte Parker's mother, identified in hearing notices as "Ms. Parker," illustrated the chairman's point.
She testified her son was shuttled from a facility in Pennsylvania to one in Summerville, S.C., without her knowledge. Her requests to visit Delonte were denied, she said.
"I continued to push and push and push," Ms. Parker said. "I was told there was no funding. I was willing to pay to go on my own. It was just every excuse in the book, to me."
She said her son has apologized for his recent actions, but told her he had to leave the facility because of inattentive staff and the mix of seriously troubled youth at the Southern facility.
Mr. Stanley acknowledged that youths perform better when they are closer to home, so he is working on a program to reduce the number of out-of-state placements and take a closer look at the youths placed outside the District.
He also promised to set up roundtable discussions to hear from parents of DYRS wards, document signs of gang activity, and analyze the efficacy of youth programs.
"It's not just about providing services," Mr. Stanley said. "We've got to know if those services work."
Mr. Graham also scrutinized the juvenile justice qualifications of Capt. Steven Baynes, a longtime U.S. Coast Guard professional appointed to the superintendent post at New Beginnings.
The chairman signaled he would look into the appointment after Namon Reid III, acting superintendent at the facility from October to April, testified he was disciplined and terminated after the April 18 escape to make way for Capt. Baynes.
Mr. Reid said Mr. Stanley placed him on administrative leave because he did not awake to phone calls on the night of the escape.
According to Mr. Reid, Carey was able to swipe the beaten officer's radio tag to get through seven doors of the facility and bypassed 12 cameras. He walked over to the school building to retrieve an unsecured ladder from the workshop.
"No one, with the exception of me, has been subjected to any discipline, and I wasn't even at the facility," Mr. Reid said.
Mr. Reid accused Mr. Stanley and deputy director Barry Holman of posting the New Beginnings job twice, in October and again in late March. The second posting did not contain a portion about relevant experience in juvenile justice, which Mr. Reid deemed a rigged system to opt for Capt. Baynes.
"DYRS is facing critical challenges at this time," he said. "(Mr. Stanley) and Barry Holman are the wrong people to lead this critical agency."
Mr. Stanley said he was aware the posting changed, but it is not unusual for any agency to update their job announcements. He told Mr. Graham he would look into the particulars of Mr. Reid's complaint.
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