Reform aims at youth sites

The state would be required to oversee the training of staff at private residential programs for juvenile offenders such as the Bowling Brook Preparatory School, where a student died last month, under legislation pending in Annapolis.

Isaiah Simmons, 17, died after being physically restrained for several hours by Bowling Brook counselors. The methods used to subdue him have raised questions about the state's oversight of such programs. Witnesses have said they saw staff members sitting on the struggling teen until he passed out and died.

Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services has acknowledged it exercises no supervision over staff training at Bowling Brook and about 20 other private facilities it licenses - though it places hundreds of children in state custody with them.

Backers of the legislation hope public concern will give momentum to the proposed legislation, similar versions of which have failed in the past. "The tragedy at Bowling Brook will have a major impact on the debate this year," said the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Jim McComb, who heads an association of private residential programs for youth, said his association supports more regulation of training, particularly in restraining techniques.

"Anybody can claim to do this restraint training," said McComb, executive director of Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth. "The only people who should be allowed to do it are people who have been somehow approved by the state."

Youth welfare advocates welcomed the legislation, which would require direct-care workers at residential facilities to be at least 21 years old and receive instruction only from state-approved trainers.

"When you put a child in an organization run by private industry, but they have a state contract, why shouldn't they be subject to the same standards as the Department of Juvenile Services?" said Kimberly M. Armstrong of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. "You may have a child who would still be here if the staff had known how to react to him in a proper manner."

Bowling Brook officials have said in written statements that Simmons was restrained by "senior staff of the highest caliber with advanced training." They have also "categorically" denied that workers knelt or sat on Simmons' back while he was down, as several student eyewitnesses have told The Sun and their lawyers in the Maryland public defender's office.

A former Bowling Brook counselor who worked there for three months in 2004 told The Sun this week that he routinely saw other counselors kneel on students' backs while they were down.

"I've seen knees on backs, knees on butts, knees on legs," said Micah Mincey, who works as a public school substitute teacher in Savannah, Ga. "Sometimes it would be a knee on the back, just enough to get [a student] calm, but if a person was squirming and trying to get up" then the weight was applied longer, he said.

Medical experts say that putting pressure on a person's back while he is on his stomach - especially after a period of intense physical exertion - can cause cardiac arrest. The medical examiner has not released a cause of death for Simmons. The death is being investigated by the Carroll County Sheriff's Office.

Mincey said he quit his job as "counselor-teacher" at Bowling Brook after his supervisors quarreled with him about completing some paperwork. He said he was not trained by Bowling Brook but arrived at the job with restraint training from Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, where he had worked with mentally ill patients.

Current regulations require that staff at state-licensed private facilities pass criminal background checks; that direct-care workers under age 21 have an associate of arts degree; and that those over 21 have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. Workers must also have 40 hours of training, including in restraint techniques, but the training is neither supervised nor approved by the state.

A fiscal analysis last year did not put a dollar amount on the potential cost of the training, but said the effect on small businesses that provide residential care would be "meaningful." The cost of developing training programs would likely be passed onto the state, the analysis said.

Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who supports the bill and is chairman of the House committee that will hear the legislation, expressed hope that its cost would not preclude its passage.

"We have to be extremely careful with what we pass, with regards to how much it costs. But we also have to understand how important the issue is to the citizens of Maryland," Hammen said.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said reform of the juvenile justice system is a top priority, but that it is too early to weigh in on specific proposals. "It's something that we will work with Senator Zirkin on," Rick Abbruzzese said.

O'Malley's choice for juvenile services secretary, Donald W. Devore, met this week with Zirkin and the governor to discuss the proposal. "This is something that Secretary Devore will work with the General Assembly on, and at the appropriate time, make a recommendation to the governor," Abbruzzese said.