With little warning, the state Department of Juvenile Services put a Baltimore youth on a plane to Iowa yesterday to spend months in a program for delinquents there - despite the objections of his grandmother and his lawyer, who say they didn't even get a chance to say goodbye.
State officials argued that the privately run reformatory in a small town outside Des Moines is the best place for the youth, who has been arrested for offenses including assault, car theft and escape. Baltimore Circuit Judge Clifton J. Gordy agreed.
But as the state prepares to shut down most of the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School next month, critics say it is bad public policy to send Maryland's young, often urban offenders to what is essentially a foreign environment hundreds of miles from their guardians.
"Maryland taxpayers should be outraged that their tax dollars are being wasted, and worse, are being used to actually harm children and needlessly separate them from their families," said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, who heads the advocacy group JJ FAIR.
The state has long sent a few such youths to out-of-state programs when appropriate placements could not be found in Maryland. But Juvenile Services officials say that with the closing Nov. 30 of the 144-bed, secure program at Hickey, more young offenders will be sent to other states - including programs as far away as Minnesota and Texas - until alternatives can be developed here.
The agency says about 24 youths probably will be sent to other states in the next month; officials have declined to say how many are likely to go during the next year.
Alberta Diggs of Waverly said yesterday that she had been hoping officials would find a place somewhere in Baltimore to help her grandson, Phillip Koromah, whom she has raised from infancy. His mother, who Diggs said had abused drugs in the past, died in 2002.
Diggs had visited Koromah at least once a week during his 3 1/2 -month stay at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, and she was aware officials were considering sending him to another state. But she said she received no notice that a final decision had been made.
She said her grandson called her about 9:30 a.m. and told her they were flying him to Iowa. "I don't want him to go to Iowa," said Diggs, who is Koromah's legal guardian. "I'm pretty upset. As soon as I find out where he's at and when I can see him, I'll be gone."
Diggs said she was prepared to care for Koromah, who turned 18 in August, at her home and has insurance through her job to pay for counseling. She supervises a cleaning crew at a downtown office building.
Koromah's lawyer, Jay Ortis, said that Juvenile Services officials didn't notify him of his client's departure until shortly before 2 p.m., when a hearing was supposed to be held on his status. By then, the plane was in the air.
Gordy had been pressing Juvenile Services officials to find a suitable placement for Koromah, who had been held at the downtown juvenile center since July 4.
The judge said he is comfortable with his decision to send the youth to Woodward Academy in Iowa, which costs about $4,000 a month, because there is no suitable program for him in Maryland.
"This is all driven by the closing of the Hickey School," Gordy said. "What limited number of secure placements we had for juveniles in Maryland is now even more limited."
The judge said he believed Koromah's grandmother had been told he would be moved yesterday.
Through a spokesman, Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. declined to be interviewed for this article. The spokesman, Ed Hopkins, said he could not discuss an individual's case but that in general the department works to keep families informed.
"The families are notified and made part of this whole planning process from the beginning," Hopkins said.
Diggs acknowledged that her grandson has had trouble with the law during the past four years. But she and Ortis said he had done nothing serious enough to warrant sending him out of state.
She said that he has suffered from depression for several years and needs mental health treatment. It was she who called police in July and asked them to pick him up because she suspected he was using drugs. But she never expected him to be locked up for months. "They give drug dealers less time than they've given him, and they don't even send them out of town," she said.
Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that the situation involving Koromah illustrates a Juvenile Services agency that has lost its way.
"Family treatment is a mandated part of Juvenile Services," Zirkin said. "They not only are not following the law, but they are making it impossible for the family to be involved."
Gurian-Sherman said the state Juvenile Services agency should be working with family members - not cutting them out. "These parents and caring adults want to be involved, are able to be involved and yet are dismissed as if they have no parental rights and value," she said.
At yesterday's court hearing, Ortis told the judge that Juvenile Services had failed to give serious consideration to allowing Koromah to stay with his grandmother and receive treatment services in Baltimore. He also told the judge that he was concerned about the psychological affects of transporting the teen to Iowa.
Outside the courtroom, Ortis said he had no idea how to reach his client to talk to him. "This is a young man who should have remained in the state of Maryland," he said.