Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed pledged Thursday to change his department's policies and move to limit the use of strip-searches and shackles on young people held in state facilities.
Abed, speaking at the first meeting of a task force studying the state's treatment of juveniles, said his agency has identified several ways to limit shackling and strip-searches and asked that they be included in the panel's formal recommendations.
"I do think there needs to be change," Abed told the 18-member panel, which includes state lawmakers, advocates for children, public defenders, union representatives, and corrections and juvenile services staff members.
The department's recommendations include limiting the use of shackles when youths are transported by staff members for home visits, and not strip-searching youths after visits with attorneys or appearances in court.
Juveniles Services officials outlined some of the proposals in a report to the legislature in July, but Abed said he did not want to pre-empt the task force by making them formal.
Abed said his department has revised policies as recently as July to limit the use of shackles in medical emergencies after a girl was taken to a hospital in shackles when she suffered a miscarriage.
The task force is scheduled to meet through November, vote on policy recommendations and present them to Gov. Larry Hogan and the legislature for consideration in December.
The task force meetings are to include demonstrations — members were able to view and hold handcuffs and shackles at Thursday's meeting — and opportunities for the public to comment.
The review panel was established through a bill filed in the last General Assembly session that sought to limit the department's use of strip-searches and shackles.
The Baltimore Sun reported in March that the department routinely strip-searches and shackles the youths in its care. The youths range in age from 11 to 20.
The department has argued that the practices are necessary to maintain safety and security in its 14 facilities. Advocates for children and medical professionals have said that the practices are inhumane, have been used indiscriminately and in some instances violated constitutional rights.
The department's policies on strip-searches and shackling were provided to task force members, but not to the public. Copies obtained by The Sun in March indicated that any youth transported by the department's staff was required to be handcuffed and shackled. Strip-searches were used for any youths entering a state facility and after contact with the public.
State Sen. C. Anthony Muse, who introduced the bill in the Senate to establish the task force, said he hoped the group could quickly address "low-hanging fruit," such as the instances outlined by the department in which everybody could agree the practices are unnecessary.
"If it seems we're putting [Abed] on trial, we're not," the Prince George's County Democrat said. "We're putting the whole system on observation."
In a tense moment Thursday, Maryland's chief public defender, Paul DeWolfe, grilled Abed on whether his department's philosophy aligned with that of the Maryland Judiciary, which adopted a resolution last year that discourages the shackling of juveniles in court.
The resolution stated that shackling youth undermined the rehabilitative intent of the juvenile system and the youths' constitutional rights, and further traumatized a vulnerable population.
The Sun found that judges in Baltimore continued to shackle juveniles after the resolution was adopted but stopped shortly after the investigation was published.
The resolution became law in June, when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued an order requiring judges and magistrates to unshackle youths during juvenile court proceedings unless they pose a security threat.
DeWolfe said the resolution was a "game-changer with regard to the dignity of our children."
Abed said the department has followed judges' orders to unshackle juveniles in their courtrooms. He also defended the department's treatment of children.
"I, and this department, respect the dignity of kids," he said. "We also have to balance the safety of the facilities, which is different than a courtroom."
Denise Henderson, who represents the union for department staff members on the task force, said driving youths in transport vans poses challenges. She said a youth she was transporting kicked the back of a van open on the highway, and she was not able to pull over.
"It's a serious safety issue," Henderson said. "We don't know the youth we pick up, and we don't have a rapport."
Nick Moroney, head of the state's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, pointed out that the department's policies on using restraints inside its facilities allows for discretion.
For years, the monitoring unit has recommended that the department restrain only juveniles who pose a safety risk to themselves or others.
In its most recent report, monitors and the department agreed on two instances in which girls were restrained improperly and in which staff might not have exercised proper discretion.
At the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center, a maximum-security facility in Laurel, a pregnant girl reported one night that she was bleeding heavily and believed she was having a miscarriage.
Two nurses responded but disagreed on whether the girl should be taken to a hospital and said they had to call a supervisor. Twenty minutes later, both nurses and a direct-care staff member saw a fetus in the toilet.
Even then, a nurse denied repeated pleas for the girl to be taken to a hospital.
Ninety minutes of heavy bleeding later, the nurses called 911. When medics arrived, they prepared the girl for transport to the hospital with handcuffs and shackles.
Department policy exempts some who are pregnant from shackling, but staff members said they did not apply to the girl because she was no longer pregnant.
The department agreed that restraints were not necessary in that instance and said it had eliminated the requirement for restraints in medical situations unless needed for the safety of the youth or others.
In another instance, a girl at the J. DeWeese Carter Center on the Eastern Shore had what monitors described as a mental health emergency after she attempted to assault a facility administrator.
Monitors said she was restrained while being taken to a hospital and remained shackled through nearly the entirety of her three-day stay, including when she showered, ate and slept.
Staff members reported that the girl had calmed over the course of her stay and was not combative.
Department officials said they found policy violations and disciplined staff in the incident.
Officials said they were also reviewing policies and whether staff members have the appropriate guidance for the use of restraints in a hospital setting.
Abed told members of the task force that valid concerns have been raised about the department's practices and he is open to reviewing them all.
"I've heard some today, and I think we can offer some changes over the course of these proceedings," he said.