The job of keeping order at Maryland's troubled juvenile detention centers is being left to a work force that is often too small and unskilled to prevent assaults or riots, according to state documents and interviews with staff.
Part of the problem: Maryland pays the youth supervisors little more than cafeteria workers - and significantly less than their counterparts in surrounding states.
In his 2002 campaign for governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged a "child-first culture" that would make a priority of ending violence, escapes and suicide attempts in the juvenile justice system. But the system's first line of defense - its nearly 1,000 youth supervisors and juvenile counselors - continues to be dangerously depleted by annual attrition rates as high as 30 percent for entry-level workers, state documents show.
The turnover has produced staff shortages that, according to state monitors and the workers, have contributed to youths beating one another. Last year, state monitors noted inadequate staffing levels and "untrained, overworked" employees as a factor in a March riot at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County.
Staffing levels at many of the state's eight juvenile detention centers often fall well short of federal targets that recommend a ratio of at least one supervisor for every eight youths per shift. Juveniles charged with offenses that include drug dealing, armed robbery and rape are sent to the centers to await court dates or placement in treatment programs.
In October, the youth-to-supervisor ratio at Cheltenham was 18 to 1, according to a confidential Department of Juvenile Services staffing analysis obtained by The Sun.
The ratio was 10 to 1 at the J. DeWeese Carter Youth Center in Chestertown, 15 to 1 at the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville, and 10 to 1 at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel. The analysis did not provide figures for three facilities too new to be included or for the privately run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, where monitors have chronicled instances of staff abusing youths and bringing alcohol and pornography into the facility.
The ratios have not changed significantly since October except at Cheltenham. Department officials said the ratio there has improved to 9 to 1, not because of hiring but because the population of the 132-year-old center has been reduced by half in recent months to a little more than 100 youths. The department's targets call for a 6 to 1 ratio at Cheltenham because its design presents additional challenges.
Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said the staffing problems are a big concern. "The populations need to be reduced, and we need to have more staff," he said. "It all feeds into this whole issue of child safety."
He said overtime is frequently used to fill staffing gaps, "and then the staff themselves get in jeopardy because they are tired and not alert."
At the Hickey School, according to the independent state monitor's office, an "overworked staff and a poor quality of staff" contributes to a "steady stream of assault/use of force incidents."
Youth supervisors, who must have a high school degree or its equivalent, are by far the largest part of a center's staff and are supposed to be a combination of guard and mentor. The unarmed workers are asked to provide guidance to children, and shepherd them to meals and classes. They also occasionally perform straight security functions such as staffing a guardhouse.
Juvenile counselors do just that and must have a college degree.
Maryland's starting salaries of $23,722 for youth supervisors and $26,958 for juvenile counselors are 8 percent to 34 percent lower than those of frontline detention workers in Virginia, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to an informal Sun survey.
Maryland workers undergo 160 hours of entry-level training in criminal justice, human development, security procedures and other topics. Workers in other states are often asked to have more qualifications.
"The quality of people they're getting is sort of frightening," said Michelle Hughes, a former top Department of Juvenile Services administrator who works at a crisis center for youths and adults. "They're getting people who are coming there because they can get more money than they can make at McDonald's."
Pennsylvania's centers pay their lowest-level youth-care workers an average starting salary of $29,120 and require at least an associate's degree. The District of Columbia pays $29,000 and requires a high school diploma or its equivalent. Ohio juvenile officers receive $29,661 to start and must have two years of post-high school education or other relevant training.
The supervisors "are the moms and the dads," said George Corbin, superintendent of Virginia's Fairfax County Juvenile Detention Center, which pays its entry-level supervisor equivalents $31,400 and requires them to have college degrees.
Ehrlich's proposed budget for fiscal 2005 would increase the pay for Maryland's youth supervisors by about $1,500 a year, to $25,286. The pay for juvenile counselors would increase about $1,800, to $28,749.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Jim McComb of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, an advocacy group. "The department cannot expect to have people of the caliber they want if they don't pay better and also ask higher standards. I don't want to brand everyone, but the people who stay are often the ones you don't want to stay."
Last year, the governor's office denied a similar request by Montague to fund the raises, noting budgetary constraints.
The staffing problems existed before Ehrlich took office in January last year. In 2001, an internal department analysis noted the agency's "inability to attract, recruit, hire and retain talented staff at all levels." Neighboring states routinely hire youth workers away from Maryland, the document said, and the department "annually loses an average of 30 percent of its entry level direct care staff."
McComb and other children's advocates say Maryland workers often lack the skills to deal with a detention population of mostly youths with mental health disorders, substance abuse problems, or both. About 5,000 youths are admitted to detention each year.
"The people who spend the majority of time with the kids aren't asked to be qualified in any child services," said Marisela Gomez, a physician and former Juvenile Services administrator specializing in pediatrics. "Telling these people to interact with risky kids 24/7 is like asking a primary care physician to do eye surgery - a recipe for disaster."
Gomez said she was fired by the department in December for pushing the state to do a better job of screening apprehended youths before they enter detention and referring them to various treatment programs. Montague declined to comment on her departure, saying it was a private personnel matter.
Youth supervisors report feeling besieged. After several violent incidents were publicized in The Sun last year, a few contacted the newspaper to say the problem was not neglect but rather staffing shortages.
One supervisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said she has been left alone with 25 boys at Cheltenham. She has been hit by youths and spat at, she said, but she was more upset by what has happened to some youngsters in her care.
"It's not so much them attacking you," she said, "as them attacking each other."