By ALEXIS GUTTER
ANNAPOLIS (October 28, 2010)Unfit facilities, unequal treatment for girls, millions of lost Medicaid dollars and the murder of a teacher are just a few of the problems that plague the Department of Juvenile Services.
But in spite of all its problems, the Department, which both gubernatorial campaigns have called the most troubled agency in the state, does not come up in debates or speeches by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley or his Republican challenger Robert Ehrlich, Jr.
In fact, the campaigns of the two men whose administrations were responsible for the agency over the last eight years are largely silent on the issue, and are not offering many specifics about what they would do if elected.
Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said that though the Department is a priority, Ehrlich "doesn't like to promise things he can't deliver."
And O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said "a lot is happening now," so the plan is to continue with current endeavors.
But the February murder and rape of a teacher at the Cheltenham Youth Facility, for which a 14-year-old resident has been charged, and a recent audit finding numerous problems in the Department, add to the list of concerns about the agency.
The Department of Juvenile Services remains broken and in need of repair, said Angela Johnese, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth.
"There is a lot to be done but it's going to have to be on a limited budget," Johnese said. "We need to be very critical in evaluating what is not working and replace dysfunctional services with well functioning services."
Though the Department attributes many of its problems and shortcomings to lack of funding, an audit released in September revealed that it failed to obtain and use an estimated $3 million in available Medicaid money.
Of the audit's 14 findings showing "significant deficiencies," five were repeated from the previous audit released in 2007.
But the Department calls this a positive, said Jay Cleary, director of communications for the Department of Juvenile Services.
In the last audit, conducted during Ehrlich's administration, 11 of the 16 findings were repeated, so Cleary celebrated the improvement.
"We're making progress," Cleary said. "It's absolutely a positive that there are only five repeats."
Other findings include inappropriate overtime wages, duplicate salary payments, untimely employee background checks, untimely implementation and review of youth treatment service plans, poor record keeping, and improper employee disbursement from the Department's working fund.
This spring, legislation was introduced in the General Assembly to shut down the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center, the only state-run facility in Maryland that provides both treatment and detention for girls. The legislation failed in committee.
A May facility report by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, which evaluates facilities under the jurisdiction of the Department of Juvenile Services, also recommended the Laurel facility be closed for good.
Waxter briefly suspended admission into its high-security program earlier this year after reports revealed problems like co-mingling of high-security girls with other residents, which is illegal under state law. Girls and advocates have also complained about poor physical conditions like bugs in the cafeteria and tables that had been urinated upon.
During the admission suspension, the facility benefitted from some cosmetic improvements, like new paint and carpeting, and the addition of a part-time psychiatrist to the staff.
The Department is proposing to build a new facility for girls, but construction is not expected to begin until the 2014 fiscal year, Cleary said. Critics argue that plan is inefficient and fails to fully take advantage of underused existing resources.
The Department sees a 2007 law guaranteeing close-to-home treatment for youths as a major success. However, the law left room for broad interpretation by allowing children to be sent far away for treatment if specialized services necessitate it.
But the law included no definition for what a specialized service is, and the department's proposed regulations to define the term were retracted in early October.
In its definition, the proposed regulations included gender responsive programming, or programming for girls. In other words, any treatment for girls could be called specialized, undoing the guarantee of close-to-home treatment.
Though the regulations were retracted, there is still no definition for specialized services, and Cleary said the Department regards treatments for girls as specialized.
"It's a resources issue," Cleary said. "It's fair to make sure that girls get appropriate treatment and not every region has an appropriate group home for girls."
While advocates sympathize with the budget issues, they maintain that depriving girls of equal benefits is not the answer.
"Maybe it doesn't make sense to have a facility for girls in every region," said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "Rather than viewing limited resources and the smaller number of girls as a dead end, the Department should view this as an opportunity to explore alternatives. It's about how you allocate the resources you already have effectively and fairly."
The O'Malley and Ehrlich campaigns blame each other for problems in the agency.
In response to an October report analyzing the murder at Cheltenham, Ehrlich condemned O'Malley for the "senseless death" that could have been avoided.
The findings "highlight systematic failures occurring within Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services, for which senior leadership is responsible," Ehrlich stated in a release. "This department has experienced challenges for many years, yet it's clear from this report that conditions remain totally unacceptable under the O'Malley Administration."
During his administration, Ehrlich reduced the number of youths at Cheltenham by about half and closed most of another center. He also reformed the education practices in state facilities.
Ehrlich's administration was pleased with the progress made during his term as governor, but not satisfied, said Barth, Ehrlich's spokesman. The Department would be in a better state if Ehrlich had remained governor, Barth said.
"There are systemic failures in the system now and Gov. O'Malley is responsible," Barth said. "Everybody inherits problems, and the last four years have been O'Malley's to fix them, and he hasn't."
O'Malley spokesman Abbruzzese said the governor has not made juvenile services a campaign issue because Ehrlich has not.
"My sense is that former Gov. Ehrlich doesn't want to talk about it because he has no credibility on the issue," Abbruzzese said. "He ran on it and neglected the Department completely while he was in office for four years."
When O'Malley took over in 2007, the department in the worst shape was Juvenile Services, but improving conditions is an integral part of everyday practices, Abbruzzese said.
Since 2007, juvenile homicides and shootings have been down, and O'Malley measures progress in number of lives saved, Abbruzzese said. But he conceded the pace of change has not been as fast as desired.
"Things don't happen overnight, but we've put aggressive reforms into place," Abrruzzese said.