- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland’s juvenile justice watchdog on Monday outlined widespread problems at the state’s secure treatment center for troubled youths and said the center’s oversight department “hampered” an investigation into a violent escape of 14 youths in May.

The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services disputed the extremely critical findings by the monitor, a division of the Attorney General’s Office. Copies of the report and the juvenile department’s four-page response were obtained by the Associated Press ahead of their release Monday.

The Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit report noted that staff and youths at the Victor Cullen Center feared for their lives during the outbreak of violence. It also raised questions about whether the 48-bed facility in Sabillasville is capable of handling some of the youths under its charge.

“In the two years since its opening, Victor Cullen has been unable to establish a positive therapeutic culture,” the report said. “Many factors - including multiple leadership changes, staff shortages, lack of clinical staff and staff failure to understand the rehabilitative model - have contributed to the difficulties.”

For example, many youths confined at the facility do not meet the criteria for responding to the center’s peer-oriented treatment program, the monitor found, because they have histories of violent crime or have cognitive difficulties creating hurdles to responding to treatment.

While Maryland’s juvenile justice system has had serious problems for years, the monitor’s report is notable for its pointed criticism of the facility’s management and the department’s lack of cooperation.

The report says department staff “made it difficult for monitors to gain access to evidence and to interview youth on the campus.”

In its response, the department denied hampering investigators and said monitors had access “on every day that they arrived at the facility.” The department also said youths involved in the incident had to be interviewed first by investigating police.

The department also said some of the more serious offenses by youths that the monitor said would make them ineligible for the center, such as arson and assault on police, were allegations that were not sustained in court.

Marlana Valdez, Maryland’s independent juvenile justice monitor, rejected the department’s defenses.

“In this case, we reviewed their comments and do not agree with them and stand by the report, and the report speaks for itself,” Ms. Valdez said.

The report also notes the facility’s staff members “consistently remarked that they do not have the tools to do their jobs.”

“They said the program continues to be short-staffed, and that too many lack experience working with youth,” the report said.

Six staff members were disciplined after the escape - another point the monitor takes issue with, saying it has worsened staff morale. One of the six was fired, according to the workers’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The report also criticized the department for being too slow to warn members of the community nearby about the breakout, criticism the department rejected as “erroneous.”

The monitor’s report provides more details on the chaotic May 27 breakout, when youths took over two cottages and 14 escaped after melees resulting in six staff members seeking medical attention.

Two of the youths, Julian B. Jackson, 18, and Georges G. Duk Jr., 16, have been charged as adults in the case. Mr. Duk is charged with first-degree escape, second-degree assault, burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property. Mr. Jackson is charged with second-degree escape.

The fighting started after a youth stayed on a telephone too long and elbowed a staff member in the face for disconnecting the line.

The report said there was a fast-moving chain reaction of youths beating up staff in two separate cottages.

When one or two staff members left one cottage to help with the initial disturbance, eleven youths and one staff member remained in the cottage next door. One of those youths then attacked the lone staff member, the report said.

That staff member ended up with “a broken nose, a black eye, and a head contusion.” The department, however, disputes that the employee’s nose was broken, citing medical documentation the department received.

Staff members also told the monitor that the department “minimized the extent of injuries to staff by making public statements that injuries were limited to bruises and cuts when they were more serious.” The report also criticizes the department for not dealing “with the traumatic effects of this event on both staff and youth.”

“Even the ambulance drivers were so afraid that they fled the facility,” the report said.

The department said it’s “simply incorrect” to say action has not been taken, because it arranged for a staff psychologist and a private mental health provider to meet with staff soon after the incident. Staff members also were given an opportunity to seek assistance from an employee-assistance program.

The report details how gang issues played a role in the violence

Youth witnesses interviewed by the monitor said one of the boys spoke of what was happening to his “crew members” in another cottage at the facility before punching a staff member in the face.

The report said the boy then grabbed the injured staff member’s radio and, in a defiant effort to communicate with a staff member on the other end, shouted: “You got our youth, and we got your staff!”

• Associated Press reporter David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md., contributed to this report

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