By SHAUNA MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 27, 2010) - Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore told a Senate committee Wednesday that reports by the U.S. Department of Justice and an office of the state Attorney General on systemic problems in Maryland's juvenile facilities were flawed or full of exaggerated and false information.
"We have been challenged in getting accurate reports," said DeVore. "Many things in those reports are exaggerated or in fact false."
But DeVore's testimony was challenged by several senators in a tense, two-hour hearing, with one senator asking the defensive secretary if he thought all of his critics were "crazy."
The Attorney General's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit released its annual report Monday on the safety and treatment of youth in state residential facilities.
The report found some children were isolated inappropriately for extended periods of time. It also found that youth in need of intense mental health services continue to be inappropriately placed in detention facilities.
A recent U.S. Department of Justice report found 36.4 percent of boys surveyed at Backbone Mountain Youth Center in Garrett County between June 2008 and April 2009 had been abused.
DeVore's testimony fit a pattern of recent tension between his department and the attorney general's monitoring unit, an independent office that makes recommendations based on data provided by the department.
DeVore responded to the monitor's report in a letter last week to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel. DeVore said the reports "continue to contain incorrect and misleading information that does not accurately represent the work of DJS."
"This is as frustrating to us as it is to you," DeVore told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
DeVore also responded to the Justice Department report released earlier this month on sexual abuse in U.S. juvenile facilities. The report found Backbone Mountain Youth Center had the highest rate of sexual abuse in the nation, based on anonymous surveys of boys living there.
The report on Backbone was drawn from a sample of 53 boys there, 11 of whom completed the sexual assault portion of the survey.
"We do not have a problem at Backbone," DeVore said.
DeVore said his department learned of the abuse allegations at Backbone Mountain only after the Justice Department report was released, and said the company that conducted the surveys of the boys had failed to comply with Maryland's mandatory reporting laws in cases where child abuse is suspected. He also questioned the study's methodology.
"We were treated unfairly by a company that did not live up to what it said it would do," he said.
Juvenile services is attempting to interview all the boys who lived at Backbone Mountain during the period covered by the report. However, the process is challenging because the boys have since dispersed all over Maryland and other states.
DeVore said his department's interviews of current residents did not uncover any allegations of child abuse.
Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George's, expressed concern at the disparity between DeVore's testimony and the findings of the Justice Department and the attorney general's monitoring unit.
"Are we saying that almost everything in this report is wrong?" he said. "This office that is part of the office of the attorney general is exaggerating? I find it difficult to believe that this is all a total lie."
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, also questioned DeVore's characterization of problems cited in the monitor's report.
The report documented the practice of "social separation" at DJS facilities, citing instances of children being locked alone in rooms for periods of up to 23 hours each day, for up to five consecutive days.
But department policy allows for a "cooling down" period of not more than 60 minutes.
DJS Deputy Secretary Sheri Meisel defended the practice, and said the doors were not locked and that children were supervised by staff.
She characterized the practice as "a time out," and said a federal monitor found the department's use of the practice "exceptional" after reviewing the same materials.
"We don't punish in our facilities in any way at any time," she said. "The use of social separation as it is described in (the monitor's) report is absolutely incorrect."
But Brochin said that staff at state juvenile centers had also told him about difficulties at the facilities.
He read from an e-mail he said came from a staffer at Victor Cullen Center, a juvenile facility in Sabillasville. The staffer wrote that a coworker had lost a finger in a door slammed by a child he said was unsuited to the program he had been placed in.
"Do I have to lose a finger before anything is done?" Brochin read from the e-mail.
"What about these people on the inside?" said Brochin. "Are they crazy also?"
Muse said he had recently met with 30 staffers at Maryland juvenile facilities.
"They were demoralized. They were angry," he said. "They cannot serve well. When there are systemic problems like this, they go from the staff to the students. They are real problems."
Marlana Valdez, the director of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, said a somewhat adversarial relationship between her office and the department was to be expected, but that the current back-and-forth was not productive.
"I'm willing to report and report and report, but my office has no enforcement authority. It allows (DJS) to be dismissive," Valdez said.
She said that, in spite of the tension, the departments had made some progress together in recent years.
"I think the kids are safer overall. I think the facilities look nicer," she said. "But we're not rehabilitating kids, yet. We don't have a treatment model."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.