By SHAUNA MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 29, 2010) - Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, has drafted legislation that would close Laurel's struggling Thomas J.S. Waxter Center for female juvenile offenders.
Dumais said she drafted the bill as a first step toward finding solutions for Waxter, which has been the subject of numerous critical reports by the Attorney General's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit. One 2007 report recommended closing Waxter, saying it was "virtually impossible to improve the physical plant sufficiently to make it suitable for a secure detention program."
"No one at (the Department of Juvenile Services) is denying that there are problems with the facility," said Dumais. "No one there is saying 'Don't worry, this is a great facility.'"
Dumais also introduced a bill Friday demanding expanded, gender-specific services for girls in juvenile facilities, including job training.
"This bill is a starting point," Dumais said. "If girls are offered cosmetology courses and boys are offered computer courses, that's the kind of disparity we are trying to address."
Dumais' legislation comes days after the release of a report by the independent monitor that found some children in juvenile detention facilities statewide were isolated inappropriately for extended periods of time. It also found youth in need of intensive mental health services continue to be inappropriately placed in detention.
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore said he had not reviewed either bill, and questioned the immediate effect of shutting down Waxter.
"Where would the girls go?" he said.
DeVore told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee Wednesday that recent reports by the state monitor and by the U.S. Department of Justice on systemic problems in juvenile facilities were flawed or exaggerated.
Since 2006, Waxter has been the subject of four special reports by the attorney general's monitoring unit. The reports detail overcrowding and understaffing, allegations of physical abuse by staff members and commingling of girls convicted of serious crimes with those detained for minor offenses.
Capital News Service articles last year documented ongoing problems at Waxter.
Marlana Valdez, director of the attorney general's monitoring unit, said the bill Dumais introduced Friday addresses disparities in resources available to girls in detention, and at Waxter in particular.
She said Waxter offers no formal vocational training, in contrast to newly overhauled boys' programs at facilities like Silver Oak Academy in rural Carroll County.
Valdez said many female offenders also face special challenges related to their backgrounds.
"Eighty percent of girls in the juvenile justice system come from abuse or neglect," Valdez said. "Research shows the profile of female offenders is different from boys. They experience mental illness at a higher rate than boys in the system. Those factors make it important to not just achieve parity, but to take into account the special needs of these girls."
DeVore said Waxter offers "a gender-specific, trauma-informed training program for our staff called Growing Great Girls."
"That already exists," he said.
Dumais said before she formally introduces a bill to close Waxter, she would meet with DJS and other juvenile justice agencies to attempt to create a solid improvement plan.
"I am much more interested in solutions than in legislation," Dumais said."But if things are moving too slowly or there really doesn't seem to be a good answer from the department, maybe we need to have a more open discussion by way of a committee hearing."
"As it's drafted, the bill doesn't have an answer at the moment," Dumais said. "We would need to include a plan through the hearing process. That's one reason I haven't introduced it. I don't want to drop a bill without a solution. "
Capital News Service contributed to this report.