Still reeling from recent reports of child abuse at two detention centers, Maryland Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. faces a new round of criticism from legislators and advocates for a fiscal crisis that threatens to further destabilize the juvenile corrections system.
The department, which has been grappling with plans to improve its programs and hire new staff, faces an anticipated budget shortfall of $16 million, and could face even greater fiscal hurdles in 2006, when it is estimated that the deficit could escalate to $31 million, according to an analysis by the Department of Legislative Services.
To forestall further money trouble, Montague has told advocates that his department has stopped placing youths in private treatment facilities and that some who had already been placed have been pulled out and returned to detention facilities.
Advocates said they worry that some youth could be sent home without getting any help at all.
"At this point, I don't know what the outcome will be," said James McComb, chairman of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children, who met with Montague earlier this week to discuss the budget deficit. "But I am very concerned. ... This is really the latest manifestation of dysfunction."
A spokeswoman for the department Montague heads did not return several telephone calls seeking comment yesterday.
In the early 1990s, the last time the state cut back on private placements due to fiscal constraints, McComb said populations at state juvenile detention facilities swelled, and youth who needed counseling didn't get it as soon as they should have. He and others said they hoped the state would move quickly to resolve the current problem.
"People need to understand just how important this is," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pushed for juvenile justice reform.
Zirkin blamed Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for failing to back up his campaign promise to improve youth facilities with the necessary funds.
"It is a travesty to starve a system that is in dire need of radical reform," Zirkin said.
High-ranking members of the Ehrlich administration refuted claims that the governor is not making juvenile services a priority and called the Department of Legislative Services analysis, "loose talk."
Budget chief James C. "Chip" DePaula said the Ehrlich administration has proposed increasing the Department of Juvenile Services' budget by $3.7 million, from $192.5 million this fiscal year to $196.2 million in the next. And more money could be funneled into the department this year in order to ensure that the department ends with a balanced budget.
"The governor has asked us to work with the agency to achieve this transition," DePaula said, referring to the administration's reform plan, which calls for youth to be placed in less-restrictive, nonresidential facilities. "If that requires more funding, he will move to provide that for them."
DePaula said that the department could also receive additional funding in the 2006 fiscal year as needs arise.
In addition to targeting Ehrlich, advocates also took aim at Montague, with some saying he has failed to root out corruption, and others accusing him of not knowing enough about his agency's reform mission.
"The problem isn't that there isn't enough money," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of JJ FAIR, an advocacy group that works with families of incarcerated juveniles. "The problem is the dysfunction and cronyism at the Department of Juvenile Services. There is more emphasis on keeping people in their jobs than getting people in who will spend the money wisely."
McComb, of the Coalition to Protect Maryland's Children, said that in recent conversations with Montague, the secretary seemed overwhelmed and, in some cases, out of the loop.
"There is no evidence that they know what they need to do," McComb said.
Montague, a former legislator who supported reform when he was in , has promised improved services that will heal youth and keep them out of the adult prison system.
Last week, he defended his agency after the release of two reports by the state Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor that documented child abuse at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville and the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center.
The same week, two juveniles used blunt scissors to threaten guards at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County. The youth locked two guards in a room and then tried to escape by throwing sheets over barbed wire at the top of security fences. They eventually surrendered and were arrested by state and local police.
"The heavy lifting for this department is occurring right now," Montague said at the time. "If this was easy, we would have no incidents at any time."