By ALEXIS GUTTER
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 22, 2010)—A Laurel center for female juvenile offenders has resumed taking residents into its high security program after making changes to improve conditions that caused an admittance suspension last spring, an official said.
Following a review of the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center, The Department of Juvenile Services hired a part-time psychiatrist, trained several staff members to work with committed, or high security girls, and made aesthetic improvements to the facility.
"The suspension happened because there were a lot of issues being raised about the program and we wanted to make sure we were addressing them," DJS Director of Communication Jay Cleary said. "More importantly, we wanted to make sure girls in the committed program were being treated appropriately."
Waxter is the only state-run facility for girls in Maryland that provides both treatment and detention.
But despite the changes, critics say the facility is still unfit for girls.
A May 2010 facility report by the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, which evaluates facilities under the jurisdiction of the Department of Juvenile Services, recommended Waxter be closed for good. Legislation was introduced last spring to close Waxter, but failed in committee.
"A new paint job isn't going to fix what's wrong with Waxter," said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "The bottom line is that DJS is continuing to use a detention facility as though it was a treatment facility and that's just not acceptable."
Last March, Waxter residents released a report through the ACLU of Maryland entitled "Caged Birds Sing: A Report by Girls on the A Unit at Waxter," in which they commented on the dismal conditions of the facility.
"Picture cement blocks, layers of dirt and disease, all covered up with ugly-colored paint," one girl wrote.
In the 18-page report, the girls said windows are "caked with dirt," cafeteria tables have been urinated upon, there is "old food dried onto the walls and ceiling," and "ants get under our clothes and bite us."
The same day the report was released, Secretary of Juvenile Services Donald DeVore announced the suspension of admission into the center's most secure program.
"I don't really think that this is the best (physical) treatment environment for those girls," DeVore told Capital News Service in March. "And if we can find something that's nicer for them I'd like to do that."
But the suspension was lifted about six weeks after being implemented, and Waxter admitted a new resident into the committed program the following week.
Cleary said the suspension was carefully planned to not unfairly affect any girls awaiting placement.
Before the suspension the department conducted a review of all post-adjudication girls, those who had already been sentenced by a court and were awaiting placement, and determined that all would be sent to other facilities.
When the suspension was put in place, there were four girls in the committed program—now there are eight.
The center, which can hold up to 46 girls between ages 12 and 18, is divided into three units.
The A Unit houses girls who are in the secure committed program, which means they have been sentenced for a serious crime. The girls in B Unit are detained for more minor offenses, like truancy, and are pre-adjudication. The C Unit is for detained girls who are post-adjudication and are awaiting a long-term assignment.
One of the problems that caused Waxter to suspend admission was the co-mingling between the detained and committed girls inside the facility, which is illegal under Maryland law.
Maryland law outlines that children should be served with "programming that uses detention and committed facilities that are operationally separate from each other and do not share common program space, including dining halls and educational or recreational facilities."
But given Waxter's layout, it was nearly impossible for the detained girls not to regularly pass through the committed wing before the suspension took place.
"The girls from the detention unit have to walk through our unit to get to school, to medical, to their case managers, and to the cafeteria," one girl wrote in the ACLU report.
She continued to say that beyond being a distraction, co-mingling created the possibility of fighting between detained and committed girls.
Since the suspension, the committed girls have been moved to a different wing to remove most, if not all co-mingling.
"Can I say there is 100 percent no co-mingling? No, but it's pretty close," Cleary said. "We govern the movements and schedules of the girls to eliminate interactions."
DJS has submitted plans for a new state facility for the detained girls and wants to renovate Waxter, where committed girls would remain, Cleary said.
"The place isn't ideal, but it's what we have now," Cleary said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.