CHESTERTOWN -- The J. DeWeese Carter Youth Center, billed by the state as one of its best-run juvenile detention facilities, has in recent months endured a riot, lockdowns, the forced departure of a popular employee and crowding so severe that as many as four young people bunked in rooms designed for one, an investigation by The Sun has found.
The crowding and the riot May 31, which led to assault charges against six youths, created unaccustomed tensions at the rural Eastern Shore center for boys and girls ages 12 to 18.
Carter, which opened in 1982, has 15 10-foot-by-10-foot sleeping rooms and, according to state records, is designed to house 15 youths. But it has held up to 37 youngsters in recent months by adding portable beds to the cinder block rooms, according to internal population reports.
Because of its small size and solid reputation, Carter, which sits near a soybean field on the outskirts of this Colonial Chester River town, has attracted scant attention from most juvenile advocates, state monitors and the news media.
But Carter is not immune to the problems -- albeit on a smaller scale -- afflicting larger juvenile detention centers such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County, according to state records and interviews with present and former Carter staff.
The Sun reported in June that Cheltenham was crowded, understaffed and beset by youth violence. A state monitor's report the same month detailed more than 20 cases of child abuse and neglect at Hickey, including allegations of staff having sex with youths.
Maryland has five centers for juveniles awaiting court dates or placement in treatment centers. Cheltenham and Hickey generally house more than six times as many youths as Carter.
Department of Juvenile Services officials acknowledge problems at Carter but say they expect conditions to improve when a second Eastern Shore detention center opens this year to house some of the youngsters.
"By statute, we can't put a 'No Vacancy' sign out front," said department spokesman Lee Towers.
Carter "was always regarded as the shining star," said Susan E. Bownes, a licensed social worker who worked at Carter until recently and now counsels schoolchildren for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "It is not Cheltenham or Hickey. But it still has problems."
Bownes said she and other Carter staff members complained to supervisors this summer about youths being repeatedly locked in their rooms, sometimes for hours at a time, "based on rumors [of an uprising]. [Administrators] have been worried something else is going to happen -- a riot or escape."
During a four-day period in July, facility-wide lockdowns disrupted on-site schooling. Superintendent Michael Berry said he had youths attend classes in shifts so no more than half were out of their locked rooms at a time.
Bownes said residents were "locked down for hours and hours, and you would get roommates fighting with each other. And when they did get out of their rooms, they'd be so angry that some of them would do something to get locked up legitimately."
Other staff confirmed the frequent lockdowns, which Berry said were due to "a mix of kids we had that were really volatile." He said rumors were circulating of a possible resident uprising and he decided the lockdowns were necessary. "I refuse to have that type of situation again where innocent kids are getting hurt," he said.
Berry called the May riot "a mass disturbance" in which six boys assaulted three others. "It was a result of racial things being said by one group," he said. A staff member suffered minor injuries, and the youths involved were taken to the hospital as a precaution but none remained overnight, Berry said.
Carter has had other problems this summer as well.
Center officials acknowledge that a 16-year-old girl under suicide watch managed to carve letters into her arm in July using a screw from a light switch.
On Aug. 4, Bownes, who served until recently on a governor's task force on suicide prevention, wrote a memo to Berry that youths considered suicide risks were not being adequately monitored at the center.
She noted a case in which a youth supervisor was supposed to conduct checks every five minutes on two residents who had been placed on suicide watch. The supervisor was to initial room charts to show that the youths were being observed as required. But Bownes' memo said she noticed at 2 p.m. that the charts had already been filled out up to 2:30 p.m.
In an interview, Berry said he questioned the youth supervisor and concluded the checks were being done properly.
The day after writing the memo, Bownes was told by an administrator to leave Carter and not return. She said she was told by the Department of Juvenile Services that she disqualified herself from employment by admitting on a personnel form several weeks earlier that she had experimented three times with hallucinogenic drugs 35 years ago. "I couldn't get at my computer. I just had to turn over my keys. It was really humiliating to have to leave that way," she said.
Bownes made the drug admission in June after working full time at Carter since 1999 as an employee of a mental health care provider based in Caroline County. The provider stopped handling Carter residents this summer, but Bownes wanted to stay on at the center and Berry confirmed that he didn't want to lose her. So she was to become a new Juvenile Services hire, agreeing to work initially on a contract basis and to fill out the drug-use survey that is part of that department's hiring procedure.
She said she doesn't know if her criticism of conditions at Carter contributed to her removal. Spokesman Towers declined to comment, saying Bownes' case was a personnel matter. Last week, she began a job with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene working with schoolchildren who have mental health problems.
In the meantime, Juvenile Services officials said they hope Carter's crowding will end when a 24-bed facility opens in Salisbury in November. Crowding is often worst in the summer, when young people flock to Eastern Shore resorts, get in trouble and are sent to Carter.
Besides serving the Eastern Shore region, Carter occasionally is used as a "safety valve" to take the pressure off other detention centers by accepting disruptive youths from Cheltenham and elsewhere. The recent mix of Carter residents has included youths charged with armed robbery, auto theft, burglary and parole violations.
"When the lower Eastern Shore center opens up, it will relieve a great deal from Carter," Towers said.
But child advocates say Carter suffers from deeper, systemic problems. None of the state's juvenile detention centers is designed as a long-term facility, but they sometimes have to keep residents for lengthy periods while the courts decide their cases. And placement managers often have a difficult time finding suitable treatment programs to handle the youths' addictions and various disorders.
For now, the state needs to find at least a short-term solution to problems at Carter and the other centers, said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, director of JJ Fair, an advocacy group for children based in Takoma Park.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. campaigned on a pledge to overhaul the juvenile services system. He appointed Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a former legislator who had earned a reputation as a reform-minded advocate for juvenile offenders, as Juvenile Services secretary.
Gurian-Sherman said she is growing impatient. "State agency officials and elected officials have brazenly denied or ignored problems involving juvenile justice youth that would never be tolerated if they involved youth in public schools, summer camps or child-care centers," she said.