By CHRISTOPHER M. MATTHEWS
LAUREL (Dec. 22, 2009) - As you approach Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center a sign cautions you are under camera surveillance. Notices warn against bringing in contraband—glass bottles, cigarettes, weapons.
A metal detector sits in the front hallway. You pass through an electronically locked metal door to reach the residential wings.
Down the hallway, the staff supervision room is separated from the children by a thick metal cage.
On a Wednesday in September, a girl stands shackled in the hallway, the cuffs around her hands and ankles connected by a metal chain.
This is Waxter, the only long-term, secure treatment facility for female juvenile offenders run by the state.
"Nothing's worse than Waxter, dead serious, nothing's worse," said Britney McCoy, who has been in and out of Waxter and other juvenile facilities since she was 12.
McCoy, 19, was most recently in Waxter in 2008.
McCoy is not Waxter's only critic. The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit of the Attorney General's Office has cited Waxter for a litany of problems, including: allegations by girls that they are physically abused by staff members, comingling of girls convicted of serious crimes with girls placed in Waxter for minor offenses, the inadequacy of Waxter's physical facilities, and overcrowding and understaffing—which lead to violence.
"No one should have to live there. No one should have to work there," said Claudia Wright, who monitors the facility for the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Advocates for Children and Youth and the Public Defender's Office also say Waxter should be closed.
Even the secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, which runs the state's juvenile justice system, concedes that Waxter should be replaced.
"I'd like to blow it up," Secretary Donald DeVore said in an interview.
But DeVore and the department defend the progress they've made at the facility, saying Waxter is a better place today than it was before. They also deny many of the allegations made by the attorney general's monitoring unit.
Waxter sits on 12 acres behind a condominium complex in Laurel. It was built in 1963 as a detention center for boys and girls, but was converted into a girls-only facility in 1999.
The center can hold up to 46 youths, and the population ranges in age from 12 to 18.
The A Unit houses girls who have been sentenced by a court and "committed" to Waxter for serious crimes. The B Unit is populated by girls who are pre-adjudication or "detained" for less serious offenses, like truancy. The C Unit houses girls who have been through the court system but are pending long-term placement.
Waxter is the only facility in Maryland that houses both committed and detained populations. Girls are placed there from every county in the state, some hundreds of miles from their families and homes.
But while the facility's critics and DeVore may agree that Waxter's physical plant is inadequate, their opinions diverge sharply on just how bad things are.
DeVore and his colleagues believe they are making the best of a bad situation.
"Even though the plant is atrocious physically, and we recognize that, and we've done what we can, kind of, cosmetically, the atmosphere ... has tremendously improved," said Tammy Brown, DeVore's chief of staff.
Some of Waxter's halls are painted pink and violet. A number of the committed girls have decorated their cells with stuffed animals and large cut-out letters spelling their names. But other than a handful of feminine touches, Waxter feels like a prison.
The back of the facility is enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. A basketball court and three dilapidated trailers used as the facility's primary classrooms sit inside the fence.
Within the tiny trailers, girls receive lessons on subjects ranging from American government to basic life skills. According to Waxter teacher Ellen Talley, all of the lessons are self-contained so girls can come in with no prior knowledge and follow the day's lesson.
On a Thursday in October, girls in Talley's class chatted after the lesson.
"I want to write a book," said one girl. "I would write about my regrets and recoveries, just everything that happened in my life, 'cause I been through a lot of stuff. That's the only way that people would know about me, like the things I've been through, 'cause there are a lot of things nobody knows about me."
Another said, "If I was to write a book about my life I wouldn't want nobody to know about my life. I'd make up something, like make up another life."
McCoy said she did not learn much from her classes at Waxter. She said the biggest problem during her time there was the prescribing of psychotropic drugs, which turn the girls into "zombies." At least one other woman who has been at Waxter supported what McCoy said about the drugs.
Brown said she could not discuss individual girls' medical histories. But, she said the department took prescribing psychotropic drugs very seriously.
"We have a conversation with every girl we prescribe these drugs to," she said. "We talk the girls through why they're taking the drugs and if they do take them, what the drugs will do to them."
Requests for prescription records from juvenile services were rejected "due to confidentiality laws."
There were also plenty of fights at Waxter, McCoy said. She said girls were sometimes encouraged to fight by staff members.
"Waxter is like living on the streets," said McCoy. "The staff, they grew up on the same streets we grew up on. Ignorant as all ever—cuss you out in a heartbeat."
McCoy did say the quality of the staff improved while she was there.
Brown denied McCoy's allegations about fights being encouraged by staff members and said staff thoroughly investigated the claims and found nothing to substantiate them. The girls have plenty of opportunities to report problems, she said.
"There are lots of opportunities through child advocates, case managers, for the girls to file grievances, and there is no evidence that this girl filed anything," Brown said. "There are no records that would substantiate these claims."
Brown also said that because the department's child advocates visit regularly, McCoy could have approached the advocates in person to report the incidents.
In November, the attorney general's monitoring unit released a quarterly facility report that cited eight allegations made by girls of physical abuse at the hands of staff members. Four of the allegations were made against one staff member who has since been transferred to another facility.
The monitoring unit's Wright confirmed that there were problems with the quality of Waxter's staff. But she said the facility's new superintendent, Johnitha McNair, is working hard to get rid of the "bad" staff.
Brown said there are requirements under state law that prevent serious offenders from becoming state employees and that all state employees are fingerprinted and undergo background checks. Brown also said the department installed its own checks for staff members.
"There are things in place to make sure we're in compliance with law," said Brown. "We would not employ anyone who was arrested, or convicted of a serious offense, or anyone we deemed would offer any kind of threat to our youths."
Since 2006, Waxter has been the subject of four special reports written by the monitoring unit.
In 2007, the monitors released a report calling for Waxter's closure. Among other things, the report criticized the center for its lack of a female-specific treatment model, cited faulty door locks as a potential fire hazard, and criticized the physical state of the facility.
"The Waxter Center physical facility has outlived its usefulness as a housing unit for children. The deficiencies of the physical plant threaten the safety of children and staff," the report said.
Juvenile Services has taken steps to address the issues raised in the report. They installed a new locking system, renovated the bathrooms and hired a consultant to help them implement gender-responsive treatment—rehabilitation programs designed specifically for girls.
But the monitors put out a new report in July criticizing Waxter for another set of problems. The report said the center was continually understaffed and overcrowded, which often leads to violence and other dangerous situations because the girls are under-supervised.
The report also said Waxter was violating state law by allowing co-mingling between the detained and committed populations. Because of the physical layout of the facility, detained girls unavoidably pass through the committed wing on a regular basis. Interaction between these two populations is illegal under Maryland law.
The report said that detained girls were housed overnight in the committed wing when there was a surplus population.
As a reporter was touring the facility Brown denied that detained girls were housed overnight in the committed wing. But during the tour, a reporter saw detained girls passing through the committed wing.
The monitoring unit's November quarterly report criticized Waxter for housing mentally-ill girls at the facility, an allegation confirmed by Deborah St. Jean, director of the Attorney General's Juvenile Protection Division.
St. Jean described a mentally disabled girl she represented who was in Waxter in 2009. The girl has PICA, a disorder characterized by eating non-nutritive substances, like dirt or human feces.
St. Jean said the staff at Waxter was incapable of treating her, and she became a danger to them and to herself. St. Jean was eventually able to have the girl moved.
"Mentally ill children should not be in detention," she said. "They have mentally ill kids there who should not be there. They don't have the staff who have the training to deal with this."
In an interview at his office in Baltimore, DeVore roundly rejected the findings of the monitoring reports.
"First of all, let me just say I'm being honest that we disagree with much of the reports from the monitoring unit, we think that much of what they have to say is misinformed," he said.
DeVore also said that conditions have improved at Waxter. He specifically cited decreases in several benchmarks tracked by the department.
Department data show that from 2007 to 2009 complaints made by girls have decreased by 46 percent, girl-on-girl assaults decreased by 37 percent, girl-on-staff assaults decreased by 39 percent, and instances of time spent in seclusion decreased by 33 percent.
But the quarterly monitoring report cited department-supplied data showing some of the progress may have been reversed in the past year.
From the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009, instances of girl-on-girl assaults were up 70 percent, use of physical restraint was up 19 percent, and suicides and/or related behavior were up 75 percent. Girl-on-staff assaults stayed the same.
"We're not even really clear on how they count their numbers, or how they come up with them," said Brown.
The monitoring unit uses department-supplied data in its reports.
Brown also said the numbers were inflated because the department has broad definitions for what constitutes an assault, restraint, or suicide-related behavior.
"Youth-on-youth assault could be a kid poking another kid in the eye," she said. "Restraint could be a staff putting a hand on a girl's shoulder, or really any physical contact. Suicide attempts, ideation, gesture that could even be a kid saying I'm having a crappy day today, it's any expression of not having a good day."
Brown said the department has broad definitions in order to encourage reporting of any incident, no matter how innocuous.
Despite all of these criticisms, DeVore believes that Waxter is better off today than when he became secretary in 2007.
"Do I think we've made a lot of progress? Yea I do," he said.
Britney McCoy doesn't believe the changes make much of a difference.
"There's not much that's going to be done (to improve Waxter)," she said. "Not much going to be done, funding, or one thing or another. They can paint the building a thousand times."
Capital News Service and Maryland Newsline's Kelly Brooks contributed to this report.