By MICHELLE ZENAROSA
WASHINGTON (Oct. 20, 2008)—Maryland's biggest juvenile facilities continue to face staffing problems, despite the governor's efforts to fix problems.
Eleven escape incidents involving 30 youths over the last 16 months, including the most recent at Cheltenham Youth Facility in August, revealed poor security and staff supervision, according to a report by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent unit hired by the state to oversee the state's Juvenile Services Department.
Yet in its quarterly facility report in March, the monitoring unit observed Cheltenham's "excessive use of overtime" and recommended that the facility reduce its hours.
The report read, "It is this monitor's judgment that the amount of overtime being worked by staff jeopardizes staff health and efficiency and, as a consequence, endangers the safety and security of youth within the facility."
Even after the monitor made its recommendation, overtime has continued to slowly increase from 2,793 overtime hours in March, costing the state $77,812, to 3,415 overtime hours in mid-July, costing almost $105,000.
"When staff works too many overtime hours, they're tired and less alert and it's more difficult to catch potential security problems before they happen," said Marlana Valdez, director of the monitoring unit. "We might think about bus drivers, air pilots and people working on dangerous machines. Do we want them working too much overtime? The hope is for youth workers to be engaged with youth."
Cheltenham is the second-largest juvenile facility in Maryland, which operates eight juvenile facilities that serve more than 2,000 youths.
Hiring and retaining staff at the facility has been difficult because many openings are low-paying and involve shift work in which staff must work evenings, overnight and on weekends, according to the monitoring unit.
"We are constantly monitoring that and trying to develop different ways to encourage different individuals to apply to this field," said Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. "Cheltenham is at a remote area so recruitment and retention is more difficult because people will have to commute to get there."
Overtime and overcrowding are also problems for the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, the state's largest facility.
"There's definitely a correlation between incidents of disobedience as crowding goes up," said Eric Schultz, director of government affairs at the American Correctional Association. "The more crowded the facility, the more incidents you get of inmate fights, etc. That's understandable. It's as frustrating for the inmates as it is for the staff."
In 2007, Gov. Martin O'Malley passed legislation limiting treatment facilities to a population of 48 because the state determined that 48 was the optimum number for adequate housing. But as of March 31, there were 144 youth in detention at the Juvenile Justice Center.
In its facility report for the first quarter of 2008 the monitor observed, "There is no justification for attempting to house 144 youth at BCJJC. The high level of violence indicates that 144 youth cannot be housed safely at BCJJC."
Valdez suggested creating a system similar to one in Fairfax, Va., in which new staff must have a college degree. She said she hopes Maryland will encourage those applying to complete a two-year associate's degree program specializing in working with youth.
"I am very much an advocate for professionalism," Valdez said. "In some states there's a shift toward calling direct care workers youth counselors and requiring college degrees. That requires paying more. Ideally you want a work force that doesn't have high percentages of turnover. That's expensive and decreases quality."
With O'Malley weighing almost $400 million in budget cuts this year, with $1.5 million of it potentially from Juvenile Services, the monitoring unit is unsure of the department's future.
"It's really hard to know what effect the budget cuts will have. I think each agency will make recommendations to the governor," Valdez said. "In the long run, it's much less expensive to hire full-time employees than it is to do overtime."
Cheltenham has a history of mismanagement. In 2005, the federal government sued its then-superintendent, Reginald Garnett, the state and the Charles E. Hickey Jr. School administrator Tom Bowers for a long list of allegations of mistreatment and neglect. The parties settled later that year after facility administrations worked to comply with state standards.
Cheltenham superintendent Quanetta West did not return phone calls.
The Department of Juvenile Services however, is not worried.
"Under the leadership of Governor O'Malley, the department has been supported more than it ever has," Brown said. "The last legislative session they passed an almost $200 million budget for capital planning, which will enable us to get rid of some of the antiquated buildings, including Cheltenham, and build smaller detention facilities and additional treatment facilities."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.