By SHAUNA MILLER
ANNAPOLIS (March 18, 2010)—The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill that would close Laurel's state-run Thomas J.S. Waxter Center for female juvenile offenders.
But Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, who sponsored the bill, said she did not expect it to pass because there is no immediate alternative.
"It would make no sense to pass it without a plan," Dumais said."And I can't offer one."
"Realistically, there's not anything else we can do this minute," Dumais said. "(The Department of Juvenile Services) has looked at other options within the system where we could send the girls, and these are being explored. But none of those seem to have a solution."
Advocates and the state's independent monitor disagreed, and said alternative solutions were being ignored by the department.
The hearing came one week after the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland released a report composed by girls who have lived at Waxter. The girls described the facility as dirty, bug-ridden and potentially unsafe in an emergency.
The monitor recommended closing Waxter in 2007. Four years of reports by the monitor detailed overcrowding and understaffing as well as allegations of physical abuse by staff members. Even DJS has described Waxter as "unsuitable for serving Maryland youth."
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore said he supported the bill in spirit, but that closing Waxter now would be "premature."
"This bill has identified a problem with no real immediate remedy," DeVore said.
But conditions are so poor at Waxter that DeVore told Capital News Service last week that the department has stopped accepting girls into its high-security program.
There were a total of 26 girls at Waxter Wednesday, including three in the high-security program.
All together, there are about 175 Maryland girls in both public and private residential placements. Waxter currently offers the only state-run, high-security residential program for girls in Maryland.
The department's long-term strategic plan includes spending more than $50 million for a new girls' facility. But construction will not begin for up to 10 years.
Advocates expressed concern that girls requiring high-security placements could be sent out of state while construction of a new girls' facility is pending. They noted such a plan would be costly and would go against the department's commitment to keep children close to their communities for treatment.
One of the five goals of the department's treatment model is "Treating Maryland Children In Maryland." The department's recently released "facilities master plan" characterized out-of-state placements as "costly and ineffective."
DeVore said the department has not yet decided where to send girls who would normally be sentenced to the high-security program at Waxter. But DJS data shows that the number of girls out of state in higher-security placements has doubled since December, going from three to six.
Dumais said that the possibility girls would be sent out of state concerned her. If the choice came down to keeping girls at Waxter or sending them out of state, she would keep them at Waxter, she said.
"It's not perfect, but it's close to home and family," she said. "That's more important."
Advocates and the monitor have repeatedly argued that space could be made available in existing DJS facilities for both girls in less secure detention and girls requiring "hardware-secure" placements. Suggestions have included fencing in stand-alone cottages at the boys-only Cheltenham Youth Facility or the Charles H. Hickey School, or retrofitting the William Donald Schaefer House in Baltimore with security measures.
Marlana Valdez, director of the state's monitoring unit, called for a careful review of DJS properties that could offer space for a small, secure girls facility. She pointed out that a 12-bed cottage at Savage Mountain Youth Center in Western Maryland has been vacant since May.
Sonia Kumar, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the ACLU would continue working with Dumais on how to best serve the girls remaining at Waxter in the years before a new facility is built.
"It is absolutely untrue to say there is nothing we can do in the interim," Kumar said. "We're not abandoning the girls we've met during the course of this investigation."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.