Experts: Youths charged with crimes should be strip-searched only when there's 'reasonable' suspicion

Experts: Juvenile offenders should be strip searched only when there's a "reasonable" suspicion.

The Department of Juvenile Services should strip-search youths charged with crimes only when agency officials have a "reasonable" suspicion that they have contraband, a panel of national experts told a state task force Thursday.

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, said state policy is too broad because it requires strip searches whenever young people are first detained and after contacts with the public.

Guidelines from nationally recognized organizations, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the American Correctional Association, suggest that juveniles be strip-searched only in certain cases. The department has said some of its policies are guided by those organizations' standards.

"DJS policy, as it is written now, goes the other way," Soler said. "They are broadly tailored, and they're also not consistent with national juvenile corrections standards."

The task force, composed of advocates, lawmakers and juvenile system staffers, is expected to submit recommended changes to DJS policy regarding strip searches and shackling of juveniles in December to Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly.

The state juvenile services department has been under fire since a Baltimore Sun investigation in March highlighted the routine strip-searching of juveniles in state custody and the shackling of juveniles in court.

Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed has already agreed not to require strip searches after visits with attorneys and family members, and after the youths return from court appearances. He has asked that those limitations be part of the formal recommendations made by the task force.

A consensus has not been reached over whether juveniles should be routinely strip-searched during intake to a state facility.

Abed said that while nationally recognized guidelines suggest strip searches may not be necessary after visits, those guidelines don't say such searches should be limited at intake.

John Irvine, head of research and evaluation for the Department of Juvenile Services, said a review of 36 states found that 86 percent required strip searches at intake. Two-thirds required strip searches after family visits.

Abed has stressed the need to ensure safety in state facilities. He noted that families have attempted to pass drugs to youths they visit. He said Thursday that the department is evaluating whether to acquire pan-and-zoom cameras that would allow staff to better supervise family visits.

Every juvenile, regardless of age, alleged crime or whether they have been found responsible for the crime, is strip-searched upon intake. About 4,300 youths cycled through the juvenile detention system last year.

In the most recent fiscal year, state officials said, two 10-year-olds were detained briefly — one for 21/2 days, the other for 21/2 hours — and both were strip-searched. The majority of youths detained by DJS are 15 to 17 years old, Irvine said.

State officials said they do not force youths to get undressed, but those who refuse to do so are segregated from the general population.

Some experts contend the practice traumatizes youths during formative years. Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, read Thursday at the task force meeting from statements by juveniles who had been detained. The youths described feeling violated and ashamed. Some said the experience recalled sexual abuse they had suffered.

"By the time they're old enough to talk, we teach them the concept of private parts," Feierman said. "A strip search violates the rules we teach our children about privacy and dignity."

Dana Schoenberg, visiting professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, testified that Santa Cruz, Calif.; Massachusetts and other jurisdictions have chosen to limit the use of strip searches.

Schoenberg, who also worked as an investigator with the Department of Justice, said she has concerns about "sexual safety" and that strip searches could harm the relationship between staff members and youths.

"We're blurring the lines between what's appropriate relationships between children and adults," she said.

Still, research directly linking strip searches with trauma is limited.

Arlene F. Lee, executive director of the Governor's Office for Children, who serves on the Maryland task force, said she believes experts are extrapolating information from different studies and passing their opinions off as research.

"There's best practice and there's science — and the science is really young around this," Lee said.

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