By ELLEN FISHEL
ANNAPOLIS - Treatment and conditions for girls in the juvenile justice system are gradually improving nearly a year after the state separated and moved the most serious offenders, but work remains to be done, according to advocates and state officials.
The total number of incident reports involving girls in the system has decreased since the Department of Juvenile Services separated the long-term committed girls and the short-term detention population—girls who are either detained before their court appearances or have been committed to the department and are pending placement.
There were 198 incidents of everything from assault to minor group disturbances in the most recent quarter, down from 290 the last time the populations were housed together.
The Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent monitor based in the state attorney general's office, and other advocates, have long noted disparities in the treatment of girls in the juvenile justice system. The department separated the committed girls in November in order to specialize and improve treatment.
"Basically, we're able to better manage the behavior at the two different facilities because you can focus on one population," said Jay Cleary, spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Services.
Before the move, many of both the long-term committed girls and the short-term detention population were housed together at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel. Approximately 11 committed girls now reside at J. Deweese Carter Children's Center in Chestertown.
"My understanding is the move was a very good one," said Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, and a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the women's legislative caucus.
However, the split wasn't an immediate success. In the first quarterly monitoring unit report after the committed girls were relocated, the monitor cited some poor conditions and violations of department policies at Carter. Staff members overused restraints and incorrectly filed incident reports, and quality of bathroom privacy and food was not up to standards.
Cleary attributed these issues to the staff transitioning to learn to work with girls, since Carter previously housed boys. Behavior also worsened because the department temporarily suspended off-ground trips at all DJS facilities as it addressed gaps in its transportation policy.
As the staff adjusted, conditions have improved and restraints are being used more correctly, Cleary said. Juvenile services' policy mandates restraints be used as a last resort to control a dangerous situation.
"We have the policies in place and we feel the staff, by and large, are good at implementing it," he said. "You can't prevent every situation.
They're able to now sort of recognize when things are escalating to a level they shouldn't be going to."
But even with a reduction in incidents, the most recent monitoring unit report still raised issues. The monitors felt there was a lack of gender-specific programming and trauma care, as well as a need for more vocational training.
Carter offers a computer literacy vocational program and food service training, but Cleary said the department recognizes the need to do more.
Sonia Kumar, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who works with juvenile justice issues and helped write a report on girls at Waxter titled "Caged Birds Sing," said the department has taken the right steps to improve treatment for girls, but it should continue to address exiting problems.
"Closing the committed program at Waxter was vital to meeting basic standards of care for girls, and there is no question that DJS has made great strides for girls at the Carter Center in a very short period of time," Kumar wrote in an email. "But that program is a work in progress and the JJMU (independent monitor) raises critical issues for DJS to resolve going forward."
The monitor raised concerns about Carter's use of shackles and cuffs when transporting girls off-site for medical appointments. All eight girls interviewed by the monitor "complained about this embarrassing and hurtful practice."
Cleary said policy mandates all juveniles in the system be transported in restraints for public safety. Once in treatment for 30 days, girls can earn transportation without restraints based on good behavior.
However, the monitoring unit did not note any instances of this policy being put into practice.
Dumais emphasized the importance of the department developing a treatment plan specifically for girls.
"Based on some of the psychological data on girls at that age, that's what they need - the immediate response and immediate aid," she said.
The Department of Juvenile Services recently began to implement a trauma services model that Cleary said will better address the specific needs of girls. The Attachment, Self Regulation and Competency (ARC) model is not exclusively for females, however, and is implemented at facilities for boys, as well.
The staff at Carter is receiving additional ARC training from the model's co-developer, Margaret Blaustein.
Behavior of the detained girls population at Waxter is also improving since the split, with incidents of reported assault cut nearly in half between the first and second quarter this year.
However, the physical conditions of the facility remain an issue. The most recent monitoring unit report called Waxter "a decrepit physical environment" and recommended the department prioritize the replacement of the facility entirely.
Plans to build a new female detention facility on the site of the now-closed Thomas O'Farrell center in Carroll County are in the works, Cleary said. The department hopes to begin to receive funding in July 2013 and have a functional, occupied facility by June 2017.
Overall, Dumais said she thinks the department's attitude toward and focus on girls in the system has shifted in a positive direction.
"I think we're giving it the attention it needs," she said. "There's still a lot to be done
but unfortunately, as I've learned after many years in the legislature, baby steps are a good thing."