By SHAUNA MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 26, 2010) - The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill sponsored by Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, that would demand parity in juvenile justice programs for girls.
There are currently only about 40 girls in state custody, and advocates say the small size of this population should allow for more flexibility in treatment options. Instead, they say, girls are being systematically left behind even as the state's Department of Juvenile Services has made strides in programs serving boys.
Sonia Kumar, a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who testified in support of the bill, went so far as to say the gender gap in services went against the state's Equal Rights Amendment.
"The disparity is so strong that we think it's entirely possible that the state is in violation of the law in failing to provide adequate services for girls," Kumar said.
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore testified in support of the bill, and has been working with Dumais on its possible implementation.
"We support the bill in spirit," DeVore said, but he cautioned that in tough economic times funding could be a problem.
Most girls do not enter the system as violent offenders. Instead, they are more likely to have run away from home.
Judges have few options for dealing with such girls. If a girl's home is too broken to offer proper supervision, juvenile detention often becomes the next stop on a long road of problems, even if she is not violent.
Once girls enter custody, their options for the future narrow further. The state's independent monitor has long documented gaps between girls and boys in job training and other programming. Dumais' bill attempts to address these disparities.
Claudia Wright, who works for the state's independent monitor, testified in support of the bill. Wright first reported on the lack of programming for girls in 2007, and says that not much has changed since then.
"It is time for the legislature to step in and assure fundamental fairness for this particular minority group," said Wright, whose unit monitors juvenile facilities. "We have persistently reported the conditions of all the girls in the juvenile justice system over the past three years. We have met persistent failure to respond either in word or in action."
Most girls in the state's juvenile justice system are housed at Laurel's Thomas J.S. Waxter Center. About five girls are committed to Waxter's most secure wing. The independent monitor called for Waxter's closure in 2007, a move Dumais is pushing this session with another bill.
The Department of Juvenile Services plans to build a new girls' center to replace Waxter, but construction will not begin for nearly a decade.
State and private facilities for boys in Maryland offer a wide range of vocational opportunities and recreation programs. The Victor Cullen Center in Sabillasville offers boys a pre-apprenticeship program in construction, for example.
There are currently no meaningful vocational programs for girls at Waxter, according to reports by the monitor.
Deborah St. Jean, director of the state public defender's Juvenile Protection Division, said access to education was another area of concern. She said she knew of just one girl who completed an online GED course while at Waxter, while boys at Backbone Mountain Youth Center near Cumberland can attend Garrett College.
Since many girls come into the system as victims of sexual abuse, St. Jean said, girls also require services that address trauma so that they will not re-offend.
"These girls have no concept that the fact that they were raped is contributing to their delinquency," she said.
DeVore said that while he did support Dumais' parity bill, he was concerned about how it would be implemented.
"Will we be required to build a detention facility for young women in each region, like we have for young men?" he asked "Based on that interpretation, the state of Maryland would be looking at a substantial fiscal outlay when the demand is not there."
But advocates argue that many girls do not need to be permanently housed in detention facilities. They point to "evening-reporting" programs now serving about 750 youth across the state. Youth in these programs continue to live at home, but receive supervision from the centers after school.
Devore said his department is committed to moving as many girls as possible out of Waxter and into treatment alternatives in their communities, but that funding simply does not exist for expanding access to reporting centers.
Dumais said in an e-mail that she and DeVore would "work collaboratively to find a solution that would result in the girls at Waxter being in a better facility."
"But there are fiscal realities that must be faced and addressed," she said.
Kumar, who works with girls committed at Waxter, said that the status quo sends a dangerous message to girls in the system.
"The girls I work with are smart, and they're not blind," she said. "They see that they are getting the short end of the stick. They know what we offer boys, and they know what they're missing. And the message we send when we deny them access is that they are less than equal."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.