By SHAUNA MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 20, 2010) - Across the country, girls are a minority in the juvenile justice system.
In Maryland, there are just 42 girls in the system, with 27 currently housed at Laurel's Thomas J.S. Waxter Center for female juvenile offenders, said Jay Cleary, director of communications for the Department of Juvenile Services.
Advocates say the small size of this population should allow for more flexibility in treatment options. Instead, they say, the needs of girls are being systematically overlooked in long-term plans by the state's Department of Juvenile Services.
Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, introduced legislation last month requiring parity in treatment for girls in the juvenile system. The House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony next week. Dumais also introduced legislation Wednesday that would shut down Waxter, a step advocates have been pushing for years.
"Everyone has bright ideas" about overhauling the juvenile system, she said in an interview. "But nothing really seems to change."
Since girls are such a small part of the juvenile-justice population, parity in services means strategically addressing the special needs of girls in the system rather than simply building larger facilities to house them, advocates say.
This more holistic approach to girls in the juvenile system includes "gender-responsive" programming that addresses issues like sexual trauma or domestic abuse.
Though DJS worked with a consultant for more than two years on a gender-responsive treatment model for Waxter called Growing Great Girls, the state's independent monitor found in a recent report that "girls complain that they don't understand what they are supposed to be doing or what is expected of them to successfully complete the program."
The monitor found that staff was similarly unclear on the program's implementation. "Most of the material was common sense, and that they did not learn many new approaches for working with girls," the report said.
"With anything that has to do with girls, we tend to just call it 'gender responsive,' and that's not really accurate," said Sonia Kumar, a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who works with girls at Waxter.
"Gender-responsive programs take into account how gender has affected girls' pathways into the system and the experiences they've had and will have," Kumar said.
Also at issue are vocational opportunities for girls. There is currently no vocational programming at Waxter, according to a report by the monitor.
DJS has committed $10 million over three years to Silver Oak Academy, a residential center for boys with a thriving vocational-education program. The independent monitor's most recent annual report suggested that adequate vocational-education funds also be marked for girls.
But advocates say the most pressing need is moving girls in the committed program out of Waxter and into alternative programs—a change that Dumais' closure bill is meant to force.
The state's independent monitor recommended in 2007 that Waxter be shuttered and the girls moved "at the earliest possible date." Four special reports on the facility by the monitoring unit detailed overcrowding and understaffing, allegations of physical abuse by staff members and commingling of girls convicted of serious crimes with those detained for minor offenses.
The death of a teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County Thursday has put DJS practices under additional scrutiny. Cheltenham houses youth under court-ordered supervision who have not been deemed a risk to themselves and others.
Only four girls are currently in court-mandated commitment at Waxter, the state's only high-security facility for female offenders. Twenty-three other girls at Waxter are in a lower-security detention wing, or are there awaiting placement in other programs. Outside of Waxter, about a dozen girls are in private facilities or have been sent out of state for treatment.
The DJS long-term strategic plan includes funding for a new girls' facility in Carroll County with room for 30 girls in detention and 12 committed girls. But construction may not begin for up to 10 years, according to a report by the monitor.
Kumar said more creative, inexpensive solutions could immediately reduce harm to the handful of girls committed to state custody.
"It's hard to imagine that we can't find an adequate space for five girls, and it's not something that needs to take us 10 years to do," said Kumar.
DJS Secretary Donald DeVore said last month that closing Waxter would leave girls with nowhere to go. Despite several attempts, Capital News Service was unable to get further comments from DeVore or Sheri Meisel, DJS' deputy secretary of operations.
But Kumar stressed that better options for committed and detained girls do exist, whether or not Waxter remains open.
"DJS' position ... assumes there's only one type of secure placement: A big, prison-like facility with a lot of beds," said Kumar. "Which is what we have already, and which we know doesn't work."
Kumar pointed to the successful PACT evening reporting center for male juvenile offenders in Baltimore. Boys check into the center after school and are returned to their homes in the evening by staff. The center was recognized last year as a Model for Change program by the MacArthur Foundation.
Statewide, "detention alternative" programs serve about 750 juveniles of both genders, said Cleary, the DJS spokesman.
No girls are currently served at the Baltimore reporting center, though Kumar said many of the girls in detention at Waxter are from Baltimore. She said extending evening reporting to girls would also be a more cost-efficient long-term strategy than housing lower-risk girls at the proposed new facility.
Reports by the independent monitor have also repeatedly suggested that committed girls could be moved to small sites on other DJS properties, such as The Way Home, outside of Baltimore. The office also continues to advocate shifting funding from "bricks and mortar" to cheaper and more flexible community-based programs.
Kumar said constructing a new facility would actually limit options for girls in treatment and detention.
"You're stuck with what you build and all the costs of operating it," she said. "Money can't follow the need, and instead just sticks with the status quo, whether it makes sense or not. That's not a smart way to spend on such a small population."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.