Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. faced stiff questioning yesterday about the qualifications of detention center staff members and why the public was only recently told that four such workers were charged 2 1/2 months ago with assaulting a juvenile at the Cheltenham Youth Facility.
Testifying at a hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, Montague was asked by Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, why his department didn't swiftly disclose the incident Nov. 30 involving a 17-year-old at the Prince George's County facility.
"When you were a delegate, wouldn't you have wanted to know?" Brochin asked of Montague, who had a reputation as a reform-minded child advocate in the General Assembly from 1987 through 2002.
"As we accurately reported, it was a personnel matter," Montague replied. "The Department of Juvenile Services is not a law enforcement agency. We don't charge people with crimes. We called the Maryland State Police."
A local state police barracks issued a news release about the incident last week. Juvenile Services officials then acknowledged the incident and said the workers had been fired.
Brochin and several committee members also called for the state to raise the pay and minimum qualifications of the hundreds of workers who supervise troubled youths at eight juvenile detention centers.
Maryland's youth workers are "significantly underpaid" and often leave for better-paying positions in other states, said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the committee chairman. "We're the training ground. They get them after we've trained them," said Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Maryland's starting salary for the workers, who must have a high school degree or its equivalent, is $23,722, which is 8 percent to 34 percent lower than those of comparable jobs in nearby states, according to an informal Sun survey. Many detention facilities in other states require a college degree.
The independent state monitor's office has cited poor quality of staff -- as well as staff shortages -- as factors in a number of assaults and other disturbances at juvenile facilities. Montague has agreed, and said he is trying to address the problem.
There was disagreement among the legislators over how long a remedy will take.
A bill introduced yesterday by Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, would require a study on how Maryland's youth supervisors compare with other states in salary and credentials. The study would be finished by next year's General Assembly session, Jimeno said.
Department of Juvenile Services officials said they, too, want to study the issue with the goal of upgrading the work force quality.
Denise C. Sulzbach, a department deputy secretary who appeared yesterday with Montague, said revising the workers' qualifications will take time. "You have to fit it in with the parameters of the current state personnel system," she said in an interview.
But Brochin said, "What do you have to wait for? Are they waiting for more kids to have their skulls cracked open?"
Also testifying yesterday were child advocates -- and relatives of juveniles -- who accused the state of a lack of urgency in addressing persistent detention center violence. Several noted an incident Jan. 29 in which a 16-year-old boy at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center was allegedly beaten by five youths who have been charged with attempted murder.
"The governor's campaign pledge was to rebuild the broken juvenile justice system," said Erika Mills, whose son spent three weeks at Cheltenham last year. "There are no words to describe what it is like for a mother to have to leave that facility after learning about all these incidents and leave her child behind."
The committee also heard from an 18-year-old boy who said his name was Jason and that he had spent five weeks at Cheltenham last spring after being charged with marijuana possession.
"Cheltenham is infested with violence and drugs. It's the same as where [the residents] came from -- the streets," Jason said.
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