Exodus at D.C. youth agency raises questions about management

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At least a dozen high-level and veteran employees of the troubled D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services have resigned or been forced out of their jobs in recent months, The Washington Times has learned.

Current and former sources at the agency say the defections raise concerns about the leadership of DYRS Director Neil Stanley, appointed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray in March 2011.

The exodus comes after months in which Mr. Stanley has wrestled with concerns that arose early in his tenure about the agency’s ability to control youth assaults and property destruction at the 60-bed New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, and an alarming history of violence among committed youths in community placement settings.

The Times reported last year that the agency’s own figures said that more than 50 committed youths either had been killed or found guilty of killing someone else in the previous five years.

Mr. Stanley, who reportedly has clashed with staff at all levels and driven out talented people, also has been challenged on his hiring of a longtime associate to lead the New Beginnings facility.

The D.C. Department of Human Resources confirmed Friday the names of at least 12 managers and professionals who recently left DYRS.

DYRS officials declined to comment on the departed employees, many of whom were nationally recognized specialists in their fields and several of whom worked directly for Mr. Stanley.

On Friday, the agency said in a statement: “DYRS has cultivated a talented, highly qualified staff committed to its mission. In the last year, DYRS has attracted the best and brightest in service delivery and treatment, management, and evaluation. We continue to be on-track to effectively support positive outcomes for DYRS youth, their communities, and the city.”

Yet the recent defections involve a range of professional specialties and have cut deeply into Mr. Stanley’s inner circle.

DYRS Chief Operating Officer Chris Shorter, who only recently was publicly defending the agency’s program for community placement of troubled youths, has resigned, as has Deputy Director Barry Holman, according to current and former DYRS employees with direct knowledge of the departures.

Mr. Shorter, who now works for the Office of the State Superintendent for Education, did not respond to a call for comment.

Mr. Holman, who oversaw strategic planning and performance management, said in an email: “I left at a time when DYRS is strong and stable. I am confident it will continue to successfully meet its mission. There is a great team in place who are working hard. I am proud of what has been accomplished and I look forward to the agency continuing to improve how it serves the young people, families and communities of the District.”

Michael Umpierre, a former chief of staff and former special assistant to the director at DYRS who has a wealth of experience as a youth advocate, public defender and juvenile justice administrator, recently resigned and became program co-coordinator with the Michigan-based National Center for Youth in Custody. At DYRS, Mr. Umpierre helped manage a staff of about 600 professionals responsible for the care of 1,000 court-involved youths.

In a statement, he said, “It was an honor to work at DYRS and to serve the residents of the District of Columbia. Under the leadership of Director Neil Stanley, the agency has accomplished a great deal and continues to head in the right direction. While leaving DYRS was difficult, I am heartened by the fact that the agency has dedicated staff who are deeply committed to serving the District’s youth and their families.”

Neither Mr. Holman nor Mr. Umpierre would agree to be interviewed or respond to questions.

Former DYRS spokeswoman LaShon Beamon, a veteran communications specialist, has resigned and now serves as director of media relations for the Campaign for Youth Justice. She declined to comment.

In addition, Kris Laurenti, a special assistant and 2007 winner of the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Award for Distinguished D.C. Government Employees, has left DYRS for the Department of Health. Others who have departed are Dr. Walter Fagget, a nationally respected doctor and former health services administrator; Wendy Smeltzer, a highly regarded management and program analyst; and Farouk Hossein, deputy director of operations, sources at the agency said.

Earlier this year, Linda Harllee-Harper, once the chief of committed services, left DYRS to become associate deputy director with D.C. Courts.

In contrast to the experienced youth rehabilitation professionals who have departed, Mr. Stanley is a career bureaucrat who previously served as the agency’s general counsel and held executive-level positions in D.C. government with the Department of the Environment, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

He also has worked for the Public Welfare Foundation as a program officer and as a staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Black Community Crusade for Children.

Mr. Stanley took the helm as interim director of DYRS in December 2010 in place of former interim director Robert Hildum, a former prosecutor with the office of the attorney general, who was perceived by juvenile-justice advocates as too focused on incarceration.

In announcing Mr. Stanley’s appointment, the Gray administration touted him as possessing “a strong blend of public management and juvenile justice experience” and described him as a friend of progressives who was sensitive to law enforcement issues.

Besides the recent voluntary departures, a senior correctional program officer, a veteran case management supervisor and two experienced contracting and procurement officers were recently forced out by Mr. Stanley after rubbing him the wrong way, sources at the agency said.

“I can’t count the unhappy staff who have left,” said one departed DYRS manager who declined to be quoted by name.

The defections have prompted D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat whose committee oversees DYRS, to express written concerns to Mr. Gray about the leadership of the agency, according to sources with firsthand knowledge.

Neither Mr. Graham nor Mr. Gray’s office would release a copy of a memo that Mr. Graham reportedly sent to the mayor's office within the past two weeks.

Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mr. Gray, denied that he or B.B. Otero, deputy mayor who oversees DYRS, had seen the memo. He would not respond to questions about it, including whether Mr. Gray had seen it. “I can’t comment on a memo I’ve never seen, or its supposed contents,” he said.

Mr. Graham said last week that he has “many concerns” about DYRS but declined to elaborate. He did not deny sending the memo, and he did not respond to written questions.

R. Daniel Okonkwo, executive director of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, a juvenile-justice reform advocate, acknowledged the talent drain at DYRS and the need to hold the agency accountable, but said his group is satisfied with the direction under Mr. Stanley. “It certainly is an agency that can continue to get better, and by no means are they where they want to be, but we’ve seen improvements in measured outcomes and a decrease in arrests and violence,” he said.

Mr. Okonkwo, who was sharply critical of Mr. Hildum for what he said were policy differences, has praised Mr. Stanley for having a balanced attitude about juvenile justice. He declined to address grumblings about the embattled director by current and former employees, concerns that apparently are shared by Mr. Graham.

“Holding adults accountable is [important], but in this town we focus too much on the bad things instead of what’s good for the kids,” Mr. Okonkwo said. “I don’t know about the metrics for personnel review and I’m not going to look behind the curtain.”

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