Deliberation, and speed


IT'S NOT EVERY YEAR the U.S. Department of Justice accuses a state agency of trampling the rights, health and safety of children in its care, but that was spring 2004 at Maryland's Department of Juvenile Services.

Let it be the last.

Lest anyone think the letter delivered by Justice back then was describing long-past history, monitors' reports throughout the year continued to describe violence and lack of adequate schooling and health care at the state's larger detention and committed placement wards.

In March, as the department scrambled to take over day-to-day management of Charles H. Hickey Jr. School (cited, with the Cheltenham Youth Facility, by the feds as having "constitutional deficiencies"), the conditions at its still-shiny Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center were sliding downhill fast. The quarterly state monitor's reports, as well as the DJS on-site manager, were telling officials so. But it wasn't until an emergency monitor's report in the fall that it seemed like a crisis.

In September, DJS Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. said the department had been overwhelmed in the spring but was trying to handle everything in-house. After bad publicity, assorted injuries, an escape and a before-the-court plea from the public defender's office, the department announced in the fall that an interagency coalition would work to speed up the hiring and vetting of critically needed additional front-line staff at the city center, as well as increasing mental and physical health care and school hours.

Though belated, that kind of cooperation and coordination is welcome and must continue.

There are other signs that the clouds are parting. Conditions at the city's center have improved, though the "Supermax" building design is limiting. The number of juveniles held at Cheltenham and Hickey has hovered around 70 each, far fewer than in the "melee" days two years ago. A new cadre of midlevel department officials is on board, deep in experience and promising much.

This year, DJS mustn't lurch from crisis to crisis, but should use this foothold to take deliberate actions with clear goals. With the first in a series of long-term strategy reports delivered this week and a three-year plan due next month, the department should spell out what it intends to achieve in the long and short term. Though rearranging buildings could take years, modifying programs to treat juveniles more as students and children than solely as objects of punishment can begin now.

As the department and the state wait for the Justice Department to decide if it will impose fines, require physical or program changes or just a promise to fix failings it found, their showing steady improvement is the best cure. Just ask the children who enter the system today, and tomorrow.

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