This is one in a series of articles where we look at Maryland's juvenile justice system
By HOLLY NUNN
CUMBERLAND, Md. (May 30, 2011) Jennifer Younker knows that people raise their eyebrows when she tells them she's helping one of her girls become a tattoo artist.
To people outside the Allegany County Girls Group Home, which Younker runs, it might seem an unusual profession for Britteny Robinson, an 18-year-old girl who has been in the juvenile justice system since she was 12.
But Younker believes that it's important for adults in the system to "meet girls where they are."
"We know these girls," Younker said. "We can meet their needs in an individualized way."
The group home, set on top of a wooded hill in Cumberland, houses up to nine girls from across the state for seven to 12 months each - girls who have histories of truancy, running away, theft, or assault.
Robinson is approaching her eighth month in the home. She's been in and out of detention, different treatment programs, and house arrest in her Baltimore home for years prior to her time in the group home.
Robinson will leave the group home with her GED and a marketable skill. Younker and the staff recognized her artistic talent and helped her purchase a tattoo gun, needles and ink.
"When I go home, I won't have to worry about being broke. I have a lot of stuff waiting for me at home."
Making money is what got Robinson in the system. She said she was selling drugs and stealing things out of cars.
"This place definitely helped me grow up. Some people do care," Robinson said.
The Allegany County Girls Group Home, and 10 others like it throughout the state, is one option available to girls in the juvenile justice system.
Girls who cannot stay with their families because of issues in the home or because they need treatment, are sent to shelters like Graff Shelter for Girls in Boonsboro, therapeutic group homes, or foster care focused on mental health or drug-related issues. Others are detained in places like Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville, a secure co-ed detention facility, or Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, the only locked all-girls detention and treatment facility in Maryland.
Since 2007, the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent watchdog agency within the office of the attorney general, has cited deficient services and programming for girls in the system, as well as major problems within department-run facilities like Waxter and Noyes. The monitor has called for more gender-responsive programming and training for employees, and razing and rebuilding both Noyes and Waxter.
Most of the girls staying at the group home in Cumberland have spent time at one or both of the facilities before being sent there.
Advocates say that, for the 11,000 girls that are referred to the department every year, there are major deficiencies in the system. While only a small fraction of those girls will end up in committed programs at Waxter, or in group homes, advocates say the system doesn't provide an adequate range of services for girls.
"One good group home is a drop in the bucket when you look at what we owe our kids," said Sonia Kumar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who has worked extensively with girls in the state's juvenile justice system. "We have to be able to respond in a truly individualized way for each kid, based on her story and her needs, and we can't do that without having a range of services and programs. Otherwise, we just put kids in programs because that's what we have, not because it's what they need."
There are far fewer girls than boys under the department's supervision, about one girl for every five boys, so the department justifies a larger range of services, like evening reporting centers, recreational facilities, and vocational training programs, exclusively for boys.
Legislators in Maryland have been trying to change the balance of services for girls. Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, has spearheaded legislation two years in a row to require DJS to provide services "substantially similar" for girls.
It failed again this year because legislators decided it was too expensive after budget analysts estimated that it would cost $2 million to bring services for girls on level with those for boys. Instead, the agency is required to submit a report by December detailing how it can work within existing resources to even out services.
"Girls, in general, have higher rates of victimization, whether sexual abuse or physical abuse," said DJS Secretary Sam Abed, who took over the department in February. "They've been victimized, sometimes by their families or neighbors. We have to work from the background that these girls are coming from."
"By doing the study, we can see what those needs are."
In the meantime, the girls at the group home in Cumberland go to public school or take courses toward their GED. They take nightly trips to the Cumberland YMCA, which is contracted to run the home.
They do chores, watch TV and accompany their caretakers to the market or on errands. They volunteer at a local recycling center on the weekends, and sometimes go on trips to the salon or local events.
They knit or play spades together in their free time. They complain about each other, about boredom, about missing their families or friends or Facebook.
They complain about the infraction system in the house, in which they accrue negative points for things like swearing, roughhousing, disobeying rules, eating or watching TV without permission. Accumulation of negative points leads to restriction of privileges.
The girls participate in daily group counseling sessions like anger management, substance abuse treatment, social and life skills, art therapy, or self-esteem building.
The house has a basement set up with computers and video games. The main floor has a sunroom, a kitchen and a TV room, as well as staff offices and two bathrooms.
The upper floor has a large bedroom with six beds and a smaller bedroom with two. The area next to each bed is decorated with pictures from magazines or printed from the computer, mostly of hip-hop artists.
According to the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, Allegany County Girls Group Home has been under capacity throughout 2009 and 2010 because of a lack of referrals from the Department of Juvenile Services, though the need for treatment placements for girls is "overwhelming."
Funding for the group home has been frozen by the department.
The state pays $163 per girl per day, about 80 percent of the funding needed to keep the place run. The state pays $562 per girl per day at Waxter and $378 at Noyes.
"It could be a model for girls' group homes," said Jose Saavedra, who monitors the facility for the monitoring unit. "DJS could do more to support the girls out there."
Younker says she makes up for the underfunding in other ways—by taking donations from the community for clothes and services and by cutting staff salaries.
"I just don't want to have to close the doors," Younker said.