Independent monitor of juvenile facilities resigning June 30

An independent monitor whose reports detailing poor conditions and abuse in Maryland's juvenile facilities have embarrassed the Ehrlich administration is resigning effective June 30.

Ralph Thomas said yesterday that he started looking for another job during the past legislative session, when the General Assembly abolished the agency to which his office had belonged, the Office of Children, Youth and Families. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. later vetoed a bill that would have put the monitor's office under the state attorney general.

For weeks, Thomas said, he did not know whether his office would survive until Ehrlich held a news conference this month to announce his plans to keep it. "To have to attend a press conference to see if you and your staff have jobs is a little awkward," Thomas said. "I felt the time was appropriate to move on."

The Office of the Independent Monitor, which was created during the Glendening administration, oversees state-run facilities for juvenile offenders. Thomas has headed the office for the past 4 1/2 years.

"Ralph Thomas was the best thing going for juvenile services, and everybody knows it, and in my opinion this administration chased him out," said Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Thomas, however, said he was not forced out and had chosen to accept a position as director of criminal justice services in Prince William County, Va.

"I'm thrilled to be taking a job that's closer to home and for the chance to meet new challenges," said Thomas, who lives in Fairfax, Va. "It's a very nice position."

As head of the monitor's office, Thomas has detailed problems in how state juvenile facilities are maintained and managed.

In September, his office issued a blistering report on dangerous understaffing at the state-run Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street. The report described how public defense lawyers and clergy were afraid to enter the $45 million center, which had been open for less than a year.

Thomas said he was never pressured to alter any of the findings or recommendations in his reports, although he knew they sometimes made life uncomfortable for his superiors. "The office has to be in the most politically neutral placement possible, free of interference," he said. "I would say there are better placements for it" than under the executive branch.

Zirkin said that during the next legislative session, he will renew his attempts to make the monitor's office independent of the governor. Thomas, he said, "cares about these kids. Every quarter he blows the whistle on things and makes recommendations, and every year the administration does nothing."

Advocacy groups voiced concern yesterday about the impact of Thomas's departure.

"Maryland still cannot guarantee the physical safety of young people in its care," said Jann Jackson of Advocates for Children and Youth. "Without a very determined monitor, important information will not come to light."