Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced yesterday that he will keep intact an office that monitors conditions inside the state's troubled juvenile justice facilities, retaining a director who has earned praise by making public reports of violence, abuse and understaffing in Maryland's youth detention centers.
Ehrlich also announced a new Governor's Office for Children to replace the Office of Children, Youth and Families, an agency that was abolished by the legislature this spring after years of complaints that it was ineffective.
Children's advocates cheered Ehrlich's decision to retain juvenile justice monitor Ralph Thomas, saying he has played a crucial role in exposing problems in the state's juvenile justice system. His position was in jeopardy after the governor vetoed a bill moving his office to bolster its independence.
"Ralph is the key to making this work," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.
Thomas, who wasn't told until after Ehrlich's announcement yesterday whether he would retain his job and wasn't consulted about how his office would be reconstituted, said the executive order Ehrlich issued yesterday appears to give him essentially the same authority he now has.
Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said Thomas will have the same number of staff members he has now.
The legislature passed a bill this spring to move the monitor into the attorney general's office, a change backers said would guarantee its independence from the agencies it investigates.
But Ehrlich vetoed the bill, saying it would have created a conflict of interest because the attorney general would have to defend those agencies, such as the Department of Juvenile Services, from accusations the monitor made.
Jim McComb, head of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth, said advocates will watch closely to make sure Thomas' access and resources are maintained.
"If Ralph or anybody else stands up and says his independence has been curtailed, I don't think the legislature will stand for it," he said.
Del. Bobby A. Zirkin, an Owings Mills Democrat who sponsored the independent monitor bill, said the governor's action is not enough to avoid the conflict of interest inherent in having a member of the executive branch investigating an executive department.
He said he will push to either override Ehrlich's veto or establish a separate office for the monitor.
The new Office for Children, created by a second executive order, replaces what Ehrlich said was a bloated and unfocused predecessor. In its new incarnation, the office will have 19 employees, down from 52, and will focus on providing comprehensive community services for troubled youth.
"It's going to be much more efficient, downsized, very directed," Ehrlich said.
M. Teresa Garland, who was the head of the children's office, said she is leaving the administration. The new office will be headed by Arlene Lee, a child welfare advocate from Chestertown.