Democrats chide Ehrlich for problems at juvenile jails

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The two Democrats considered most likely to challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in next year's election blasted the administration yesterday for failing to improve conditions in Maryland's troubled juvenile jails, where an independent monitor once again has reported abuse.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said the monitor's latest findings - that a guard punched naked youths in the groin at a juvenile center in Rockville, while detainees at a Baltimore facility were held in isolation for five days - showed Ehrlich had done nothing to deliver on his campaign promise to institute reforms.

"Three years ago, I thought that juvenile services could not become any more dysfunctional," O'Malley said. "It has actually become far more dysfunctional. I don't think the state has the foggiest notion as to how to go about fixing it."

Said Duncan: "Juvenile justice reform was why we were supposed to vote for him for governor, and they have done nothing. Once the campaign ended, they quickly walked away from it."

Ehrlich, who held a news conference yesterday on witness-intimidation legislation, declined to take questions on other subjects. His press aides later did not respond to repeated requests for comment about juvenile services. A spokeswoman for Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. also declined to comment.

Stephen Moyer, an acting deputy secretary, said Tuesday that improvements are being made at juvenile facilities, and that reports of abuse prove that monitoring systems are working.

One ranking Republican in the General Assembly, Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, said yesterday that the governor wants to do more in the coming year to reform juvenile centers but that Democratic legislators were bent on obstructing progress.

"He is trying, desperately, but he is receiving no help from the legislature," O'Donnell said. "The legislature has stripped significant money from the [2006] state budget for juvenile services."

The state Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor reported Tuesday that a guard at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville held gang-like initiation rituals in which detainees were stripped and hit in the groin. The director of the facility, Clara H. Miley, didn't assign enough staff to meet requirements or require accurate log reports, the monitor said. Miley was placed on administrative leave and has been transferred. Montgomery County child welfare officials are investigating.

The monitor's office also reported that three youths at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center were held in seclusion for five consecutive days, a violation of state law that limits isolation of juveniles to three days. The monitor said the youths, who had tried to escape from the downtown facility Feb. 15, were not allowed regular showers, schooling or recreation. During their seclusion, two acted suicidal.

This week's reports followed a scathing assessment by the monitor's office in September of last year, which found that the Baltimore facility was severely understaffed and dangerously out of control, with youths attacking each other and staff, setting fires, climbing walls to escape and attempting suicide.

And in April of last year, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that violent conditions and substandard care at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County violated the constitutional civil rights of the youths confined there.

General Assembly Democrats who have in the past called for reform said they were aghast at the latest reports of abuse.

"I have run out of adjectives to describe the Department of Juvenile Services," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "The type of stuff reported is the worst kind of abuse you can imagine. It is state-sanctioned abuse of kids. It is the same stuff that the Department of Justice wrote about. The department always says it is getting things under control, but this is horrible."

Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he has written legislation that would require a switch to smaller juvenile detention facilities with more intensive services. But Zirkin said the Ehrlich administration asked him to hold off on introducing the bills until next year's legislative session.

Montague, a former state delegate who pushed for juvenile center improvements, is expected to release a plan by the end of the year that could set up smaller, regional facilities similar to the ones Zirkin proposed.

Cameron E. Miles of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition said he is frustrated that despite political promises, little appears to have changed. "I have been reading the reports with knots in my stomach," Miles said.

Sun staff writer Jill Rosen contributed to this article.