Gov. Martin O'Malley is supporting legislation that would force the state to regulate staff training at private residential programs for juvenile offenders, officials said yesterday.
The administration's endorsement bolsters the chances for a bill that has gained momentum in recent weeks after the death of an East Baltimore teenager at Bowling Brook Preparatory School. Isaiah Simmons died Jan. 23 after being physically restrained for hours by workers at the privately run center in Carroll County.
Simmons' family joined child welfare advocates yesterday in urging lawmakers to support the legislation.
"My name is Felicia Wilson, and I miss my son very much," Simmons' mother, in a faint voice, told members of the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "The reason I'm here is to help other children, other children in the state."
Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services has acknowledged that it exercises virtually no supervision over staff training at residential programs like Bowling Brook, even though it places hundreds of youths in state custody in such facilities -- at a cost of millions of dollars a year.
Under current law, workers in private programs must have 40 hours of training, including in restraint techniques, but the training is not supervised or approved by the state. The legislation would require direct-care workers to receive instruction only from state-approved trainers. It also would require that the workers be at least 21 years old.
In addition to the staff-training provision, the pending law would put in place a system of "outcomes evaluation" at private juvenile facilities. The data-driven system would measure success by requiring state agencies to collect and report statistics, such as recidivism rates, on children in private programs.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, cautioned his fellow lawmakers that the legislation will "not cure what ails the Department of Juvenile Services. Our system is a disaster ... but this is the most minimal step you could possibly take and we have a hell of a lot more to do."
Arlene F. Lee, executive director of the Governor's Office for Children, which oversees juvenile services and other state agencies that provide services to children in state custody, said her office will accept responsibility for developing a staff-training certification system.
"The governor is very supportive of" the bill, Lee said after the hearing. "Our fundamental commitment is improving outcomes for children."
The Office for Children has already begun soliciting software vendors to implement the outcomes evaluation component, Lee said, which will be part of the governor's broader StateStat initiative to hold state agencies accountable for the public dollars they spend.
Jim McComb, who heads an association of private residential programs for youth, told the committee that his association's members welcome a law that would make their programs subject to stricter rules about the training of their staff.
"We need legislation that is more specific about regulation dealing with behavior management," he said.
The methods allegedly used to subdue Isaiah Simmons at Bowling Brook have provoked strong criticism from medical experts and national authorities on safe ways to subdue unruly youths.
Witnesses have said they saw Bowling Brook staff members sit on the struggling teen until he passed out and died. In a written statement, Bowling Brook officials have categorically denied that workers knelt or sat on Simmons' back while he was held face-down.
The school's own account of the Jan. 23 incident, contained in a required report to juvenile services, describes a three-hour confrontation involving physical restraint that ended only when the East Baltimore youth lost consciousness.
Simmons, who was at Bowling Brook after being found responsible in juvenile court for armed robbery, was later pronounced dead at Carroll Hospital Center. The Carroll County sheriff's office is investigating the death.
Despite the wide-ranging support for Zirkin's bill yesterday, the committee's vice chairman, Democrat Roy P. Dyson of Southern Maryland, expressed "a great deal of concern" about its cost.
A fiscal analysis prepared by the state estimated the cost of implementing the outcomes-evaluation component at nearly $900,000. The analysis did not put a dollar amount on the staff-training provision.
"The cost should not be considered when it comes to children," Simmons' mother said after the hearing.
As a delegate, Zirkin sponsored a similar bill last session, which passed the House in a unanimous vote, but the measure died in the Senate Finance Committee amid concerns over cost. But Zirkin predicted his bill would pass this year, with O'Malley's support.
"He has given me assurances that this is a bill he wants to see passed," Zirkin said.