By SHAUNA MILLER
LAUREL (March 12, 2010) - The condition of the Thomas J.S. Waxter Center for female juvenile offenders is so bad that Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore told Capital News Service during a tour Thursday that the facility recently stopped accepting girls into its high-security program.
Also Thursday, several girls who have lived at Waxter reported through the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on conditions at the state-run Laurel facility, describing it as dirty, bug-ridden and potentially unsafe in the event of an emergency.
In "Caged Birds Sing: A Report by the Girls on the A Unit at Waxter," the girls paint a grim picture of their temporary home, where offenders are typically detained from two weeks to nine months depending on their treatment program. Some have been at Waxter more than a year.
The 18-page report was compiled by the ACLU over the course of a year of workshops with the girls. It describes windows "caked with dirt" that don't let in sunlight. In the cafeteria, "the tables have been urinated on."
Getting to see a dentist or eye doctor takes months, the girls said. Some feel they do not get enough to eat. One said she found part of a steel-wool pad in her food.
Girls also questioned the building's safety.
"The keys and locking system are too much work for the staff. We think it's dangerous," they said. "If there was an emergency, like a fire, we would be injured because the staff can't work the keys fast enough to let us out in time."
The report comes as DJS decides whether it should continue sending girls to Waxter's high-security program or whether girls requiring such a program would be better served outside the state, or in other ways. Waxter currently offers the only such state-run program in Maryland.
"Everything is just totally on hold," DeVore said.
"I don't really think that this is the best (physical) treatment environment for those girls," DeVore said. "And if we can find something that's nicer for them I'd like to do that."
DeVore said Waxter is still receiving referrals for girls requiring a high-security program, but those girls are being "processed by the courts" while the department makes its decision.
The number of girls in all of Waxter's programs has declined each year under DeVore's tenure. He attributes the change to intensive, in-home intervention programs designed to keep children requiring lower levels of treatment out of residential facilities. As of Thursday, only three girls were in Waxter's highest-security program.
"If the decision comes down to putting girls out of state and continuing the committed program at Waxter, it's going to be a hard decision for me," said DeVore.
DeVore said only eight or nine girls are currently in out-of-state programs. Children are typically only sent out-of-state when they require intensive mental health services state facilities cannot provide.
"There would be a monetary difference," DeVore said. He noted that funding for in-state and out-of-state juvenile services comes through separate channels.
"But the money ... it's not that it's unimportant, but it's not the primary consideration," DeVore said. "The primary consideration is how can we best address the needs of the girls."
In 2007, the state's independent monitor recommended Waxter be shuttered and girls moved "at the earliest possible date."
Four special reports by the monitor 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.
Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, has introduced a bill that would close Waxter. The House Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on it next week.
Dumais said she has been working with DJS and advocates over several months to develop a plan to better meet the needs of girls at Waxter and in the system. She also introduced a bill requiring gender parity in services for girls in the system, including job training.
"Everything (the girls) said in the report is the reason I put the parity bill in, as well as the bill to close Waxter,"' Dumais said.
There were 26 girls at Waxter Thursday. All together, there are about 175 girls in residential placements, eight of them out of state.
DeVore said he was disappointed with the ACLU report, as their agreement with DJS to provide workshops did not include compiling information to be made public.
"I entered into an agreement with ACLU to assist us with some programming ideas and what we got instead was some girls that I feel were manipulated," DeVore said. "The girls themselves weren't aware that the intended purpose of this was the publication of some kind of report."
DeVore also said that the small number of girls involved with the report did not offer a clear picture.
"By sensationalizing and exaggerating things beyond what they really are, which is what the ACLU has been doing, it's really no help," DeVore said.
On Thursday, two girls were permitted to speak with the Capital News Service on the condition that their names not be used. The girls spoke as DeVore, DJS Deputy Secretary Sheri Meisel, DJS spokesman Jay Cleary and Waxter Group Life Director Vanessa Holt looked on.
Both girls said their experiences at Waxter had been good, especially compared with other juvenile programs.
"I've been in worse places than this," said one girl who had been at Waxter for two years. "The staff here is like your family."
She said the girls have structured activities each day, including school lessons, a mental health group, tennis instruction and a book club. She said girls earn rewards like movie nights through a point system, which teaches them consequences for good and bad behavior.
"I like it here because they do things to try to help you," she said. "If you do something, they don't just punish you. You get a consequence but at the end of the day, it's worth it."
DeVore said he visits Waxter several times a week and is aware of problems. He took on oversight of the facility's food services committee following complaints. He said a janitorial and sanitation crew had been through Waxter in the last week.
DeVore said the building passed fire inspection.
During the visit to Waxter Thursday, the facility appeared to be clean and freshly painted.
"I have been extremely committed to the girls and to making improvements over the last three years I have been here," DeVore said. "And one of the best things I can do is see as few girls as possible go to Waxter."
Beyond its criticism of Waxter's crumbling physical facility, the girls' report also critiqued the placement practices that led them to a secure detention facility to begin with.
"Some of us were placed at Waxter to try to keep us safe," they wrote. "Our judges got tired of us running, so they locked us up....Sometimes, we ran away because of abusive relationships at home....It's not fair to lock us up because our families don't want us!"
Most girls do not enter the system as violent offenders. Instead, they are more likely to have run away from abusive homes or a court-mandated placement.
If the courts deem a girl "ungovernable" by her parents or appointed guardians, Waxter often becomes her next stop by default.
Boys who are nonviolent offenders have more access to flexible "detention alternatives" such as evening reporting centers, where children check in to be supervised after school hours.
In the report, the girls noted this disparity.
"We feel that there is not equal punishment for boys and girls in Maryland. It seems like, for the exact same charge, boys go home, but girls are locked up," they wrote. "...There should be different types of placements for girls who run away—just like there are for boys."
The department's long-term strategic plan includes funding for a new girls' facility with room for 30 girls in detention and 12 in high security. But construction is not likely to begin for up to 10 years.
Sonia Kumar, a Yale Law School fellow at the ACLU of Maryland who compiled the report, said building another large facility limits options for girls. She said money would be better spent on flexible solutions that change with the needs of a fluctuating population.
DeVore said the department remains committed to moving as many girls as possible out of Waxter and into community-based alternatives, but that funding does not exist for expanding access to reporting centers since capital building funds cannot be funneled into programming.
DeVore said he would like to see Waxter closed and a new facility built that was "not just a detention center." He said it could also include a day-treatment center similar to the evening-reporting model now serving boys in Baltimore. The new facility would also have "an alternative school," he said.
But he cautioned that immediate solutions for Waxter are not simple.
"If I close Waxter, the other facilities I have are for boys," he said. "Where do I put the girls? I would hate to stuff them in two wings (in a facility) where I have boys."
Regardless of when Waxter closes, Kumar said she thinks the girls' report is valuable feedback that DJS should take to heart. She credited the department for allowing the workshops to take place, and said the girls involved are hopeful about the potential impact of their words.
"Ultimately, this (report) is important because we don't usually hear from children in terms of what we are doing right and wrong in terms of their experiences in the juvenile justice system," Kumar said. "I hope this opens up a broader discussion in the community and with DJS."
You can view the full Waxter report at http://www.aclu-md.org/aPress/Press2010/Caged_Birds_Sing.pdf.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.