By ALEXIS GUTTER
ANNAPOLIS (November 20, 2010)Secretary of Juvenile Services Donald W. DeVore announced Thursday he is stepping down to pursue "an opportunity in another state," leaving behind what some have called the most troubled agency in Maryland.
"It was truly a pleasure to serve as Secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services," DeVore said in a statement announcing his resignation. "A new job opportunity presented itself and I felt it was the right time to pursue it. I am going to miss all of the people at DJS with whom I had great working relationships and friendships."
Through a spokesman, DeVore declined to comment to Capital News Service.
DeVore was appointed secretary in March 2007, after serving in a similar position in Connecticut. He is the first cabinet secretary to resign since Gov. Martin O'Malley won re-election this month.
O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec would not say whether the governor had asked DeVore to resign. Jay Cleary, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said he believed it was DeVore's decision.
"I want to thank Don DeVore for his service, and wish him well in his future endeavors," O'Malley said, in the statement announcing DeVore's resignation. "Despite inheriting a long-troubled agency, important strides have been made in the last four years."
In the statement announcing his resignation, DeVore pointed to several improvements under his watch, including a 46 percent decrease in juvenile homicides, the removal of federal oversight of three state facilities and the creation of a youth violence prevention initiative.
But advocates say the long-troubled department is not significantly better off than it was when DeVore arrived.
"There have been some major events over the past several years that I frankly don't understand have not been considered issue enough for his departure before this," said Shelley Tinney, executive director for the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.
Those events include multiple escapes from the Charles H. Hickey School, a disturbance and mass escape in 2009 at the Victor Cullen Center, and the 2010 rape and murder of a teacher at Cheltenham Youth Facility.
One problem under DeVore is that when progress is made, it tends to be responsive rather than proactive, Tinney said.
"It's very easy to issue a report after an incident and discipline the people involved, but the department has not addressed the core, systemic issues that allow these kinds of situations to arise," Tinney said.
An audit released in September outlined 14 findings of "significant deficiencies" in the department, including failure to apply for an estimated $3 million in available Medicaid money and failure to follow contract approval requirements. As a result, DeVore requested and received $171 million in retroactive contract approvals from the Board of Public Works Wednesday.
Advocates also say the secretary fell short in improving conditions for female offenders in the system.
In December 2009, Capital News Service reported on problems at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center, the only state-run facility for both detained and high security female juvenile offenders. Problems included co-mingling of high security girls with other residents, which is illegal under state law, complaints about bugs in the cafeteria and tables that had been urinated upon.
Though the facility saw several improvements this spring, advocates and juvenile services officials agree that conditions remain far from ideal.
During this year's legislative session, Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, introduced a bill that would have closed Waxter. She also co-sponsored legislation requiring that the state provide close-to-home services for girls equal to those provided for boys.
Both bills died in committee.
This summer, at DeVore's request, a group of advocates, juvenile services employees and legislators held regular meetings to develop recommendations to improve treatments for girls in the system. A presentation of its recommendations to the Women's Legislative Caucus was to take place this week, but has been postponed until January.
Even before the postponement of the recommendations, advocates were frustrated with the lack of progress of the task force.
"It concerns me that the department does enough to say it's addressing an issue," said Angela Johnese, juvenile justice director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "It's one thing to have recommendations, but it's another to have an action plan to implement them."
Though some task force members hoped for more aggressive progress, Dumais commended the secretary for proving his allegiance to girls' issues by attending every meeting.
"He's got a real vision for juvenile services," Dumais said. "This is a shame and I wish him the best. I think it's a loss for Maryland."
But others were less sad to see him go.
"We're hopeful that the change in leadership will serve as an opportunity for some fresh thinking and more effective policies and programs in the juvenile justice system, particularly for girls," said Sonia Kumar, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, and a member of the task force.
Though there is no deadline to find a replacement for DeVore, the goal is to have the position filled by the legislative session that starts in January, O'Malley spokesman Adamec said.
DeVore has agreed to remain during the national search for a replacement, and will help with the transition to a new secretary.