- The Washington Times - Monday, May 27, 2002

Letters cut from construction paper are pasted to the painted cement walls of a lounge behind several layers of locked doors at Maryland's Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center. They spell out uplifting phrases such as, "You are blessed" and "You are pretty."
Many of the girls who come through the juvenile detention center need the encouragement, said Charlotte Wainwright, acting superintendent at Waxter. Positive messages are rare for many of these girls when they are outside the center's walls and its 10-foot-tall chain-link fences.
"They're human beings that have feelings, but often nobody cares," she said.
Hundreds of them move each year through Waxter, the only secure facility devoted specifically to girls that is operated by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice. Waxter's girls come from all over the state and from dire circumstances. They have broken families, are addicted to drugs or alcohol and lag far behind in school.
At Waxter, the state makes what is often a last-ditch effort to provide what the girls are missing classes, drug treatment and medical care, including psychiatric help. For some, it's a chance to turn their lives around.
But child advocates and critics of the state's juvenile detention system say Waxter fails the girls in many ways. Education is an afterthought, they say, with teachers struggling to handle crowded classrooms filled with students working at a wide range of grade levels.
Critics also point to a recent suicide at Waxter as a sign the center fails to adequately treat the mental illnesses of its many residents.
A centralized detention center that serves the entire state is an outdated approach, said Jim McComb, executive director for the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.
Mr. McComb and other child advocates say girls would be better served at smaller, community-based facilities closer to their homes. Girls who have committed petty offenses may not even require incarceration, he said.
And for those who do need to be detained, a centralized institution such as Waxter, with its large population, can't give the girls the individual attention they need.
"It's an archaic facility that doesn't provide an environment that is conducive to daily living, treatment or education," he said. "The best thing to do would be to raze the building."
Located just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Anne Arundel County, Waxter is a squat, one-story, red-brick building that would resemble a school if not for the fences that surround it and the grates covering the windows.
Inside it is a warren of classrooms, lounges and dorm halls divided in several wings. Girls are relatively free to move about in their units and on the fenced-in fields next to the building. They wear color-coded shirts that distinguish why they are there red tops, for example, mark girls in the drug-treatment program.
Waxter serves a dual purpose for the Department of Juvenile Justice. More than half of the roughly 80 girls are there for a short period after they are arrested. They are awaiting trial or placement in other group homes.
About 35 are deemed "committed" and are being held at Waxter on a more permanent basis. The average stay of a committed girl is 90 days, but some stay for several years.
They can be as young as 12 or just a few days shy of their 21st birthdays. Their offenses range from armed robbery to fighting in school.
About 75 percent perform below grade level in school, with girls in their mid-teens reading at elementary-school levels. By the time they arrive at Waxter, some haven't been to class in more than a year.
Drug addiction is common, Miss Wainwright said, especially heroin. Many were sexually abused, some are depressed and, in some cases, suicidal.
In March, Vanessa Salmeron, 15, of Silver Spring hanged herself from a bunk bed with a shoelace. She had threatened hours earlier to commit suicide. A guard who heard the threat failed to report it or take suicide prevention precautions, according to an independent review of the incident.
Waxter's superintendent was replaced after the teen's death, and the Department of Juvenile Justice revised suicide prevention guidelines to tighten monitoring of girls who are considered risks. Staff training on those guidelines is ongoing, Miss Wainwright said.
Immediately after Vanessa's death, there was a spike in suicide threats and attempts, according to Waxter staff and clinicians. None was successful, and Miss Wainwright attributed much of it to fallout from the suicide or attempts by girls to get attention.
Girls at risk of suicide are evaluated by child psychologists from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine using a live video feed between Waxter and the medical school's Baltimore campus.
Child advocates welcome the new program, which Miss Wainwright said was implemented before Vanessa's death. But they say her suicide is a sign there aren't enough trained staff members to counsel girls with psychiatric problems or prevent them from harming themselves.
"The Department of Juvenile Justice is not structured to really deal with mental health issues of children," said Tara Andrews, chairwoman of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.
Critics also say the juvenile detention centers face an impossible task in educating a large population of residents. Every girl must take classes at Waxter, including girls who are just there for a day or two before their trials.
That means the makeup of classes is constantly in flux as girls move through the juvenile justice system. Even with committed girls, single classes resemble what one Waxter teacher called "the original one-room schoolhouse" with a wide range of ages and abilities.
"They are in and out, and by the time you've worked with a young lady and gotten her started, she's gone," said Barbara Roberson, who heads the education program. "You've got to accept that."
Waxter has its success stories, such as girls who get their high school equivalency diplomas while there. And teachers say many of the girls want to learn, but have been shunned in the education system because of learning disabilities or behavior problems.
But crowding them into a classroom doesn't give the girls the individual attention they need, Mr. McComb said. He pointed to classes held in temporary trailers, which often hold 30 girls in two small rooms.
"These trailers were so crowded you wondered how the teacher could get from her desk to the door," he said.
Miss Wainwright said smaller homes for girls may be in the future, but for now, Waxter fulfills its purpose.
"Right now, it is a necessity," she said. "There may not be someplace in the community for these girls. We have to start someplace with them."


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