Juvenile chief: Not just fighting fires

The Baltimore Sun

Things haven't been easy for Donald W. DeVore, the highly praised reformer Gov. Martin O'Malley brought in from Connecticut to fix Maryland's violence-prone juvenile justice system.

As soon as he arrived in February, he found himself managing the fallout from the death a few weeks before of a Baltimore youth in a private detention facility. Three months later, he found himself explaining how 10 youths escaped from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School - and why an automatic notification system for the school's neighbors failed.

But DeVore remains determined to do more than put out fires, believing that systemic reforms such as keeping troubled youths in smaller facilities - close to the communities they come from, with comprehensive treatment services - stand the best chance of ending the cycle of violence, abuse and escapes that have beset the state's juvenile institutions for years.

"There are huge challenges, very big challenges," DeVore said. "But we've already seen enormous improvements in many areas just within the last three months that I've been here."

The state's actions to force the closure of the Bowling Brook Preparatory School after a youth was killed there while being restrained by staff captured the spotlight during the General Assembly session, but behind the scenes, a major policy shift was under way in the Department of Juvenile Services.

Advocates had been pushing for years for Maryland to adopt a treatment model pioneered in Missouri that relies on small, regional centers instead of large, centralized facilities like Bowling Brook or the state-run Hickey school. But state officials previously resisted decentralization, largely because of the enormous costs such a shift would entail.

This year, however, DeVore testified in favor of a bill requiring that policy change, and he helped push it through the legislature.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has been lobbying for years for the Missouri model, said he was thrilled to finally have the governor's office behind him.

"The legislature and the administration are moving in the same direction for the first time really since I've been here," Zirkin said. "Secretary DeVore came in, I believe, with absolutely the right idea about how to move forward."

The legislation requires that new facilities be no larger than 48 beds - the privately run Bowling Brook had nearly 200. The legislation also forces the state to divide its services regionally so that, for example, a youth from Baltimore isn't sent to Western Maryland.

Presently, services are even more far-flung than that. Because the state is short of treatment beds - that is, places where youths are sent for rehabilitation - many children are being sent out of state, as far away as Kansas and Utah.

DeVore said research in the field has shown that treating kids far away from home makes it much less likely that the lessons will stick when they return to their communities. That means a regional approach is best, where services such as drug treatment, mental health care and family therapy are located together.

"Those types of approaches to our kids that are most effective are the ones that engage their families," DeVore said.

But adopting the model required by this year's legislation will require new facilities, new staff and new programs - at a time when the state is facing $1 billion-plus budget shortfalls.

Despite general cost-cutting measures - O'Malley ordered department heads last week to trim $200 million - the governor has shown a willingness to invest in juvenile services. He said he would hold the department relatively safe from the budget cuts, and in March announced $21 million in new spending for juvenile services.

That included money for the state to open its first new residential treatment program for juveniles in more than a decade, a 48-bed center on the site of the now shuttered Victor Cullen Academy. That privately run juvenile treatment facility, which had more than 200 beds, closed in 2002.

Youth advocates have cheered the move as one of the state's most concrete steps toward reform in years, though it doesn't entirely fit in the Missouri model. It will be a smaller facility, but will still serve many youth from outside its region.

The decision pointed to another difficulty of transforming the system - people don't much like having juvenile treatment centers in their neighborhoods. More than 100 residents of Sabillasville, near Victor Cullen, showed up at a community meeting in April to raise strong concerns about the plan, said Frederick County Commissioners President Jan H. Gardner.

But, she added, many were comforted when DeVore said the state, not a private contractor, would run the new facility and that it would be a small treatment center, not the large boot camp that once operated there. "He certainly leaves the impression that he's telling you what he believes and what he intends to do," Gardner said.

Edmund Kunkel, president of the Finney Drive Improvement Association in Baltimore County, said the Hickey School was a major topic of discussion at a recent community meeting. The issue wasn't so much the escape - escapes dropped significantly after management changes several years ago - but the prospect of a new treatment center on the school's grounds.

"People are just afraid they're going to build another large prison up there," Kunkel said. "They're really worried about that."

The state could avoid those sorts of difficulties - and ultimately produce better results at lower cost - by spending on community-based programs that keep kids from getting into trouble in the first place, said Matthew Joseph, director of Advocates for Children and Youth. Such prevention services "are the way Maryland can get out of this vicious cycle," he said.

Bart Lubow, an administrator at the Annie E. Casey Foundation who tracks juvenile justice nationwide, said the challenges DeVore faces are enormous. Not only will the department need to find money to upgrade its facilities and staff, but it will have to develop a far greater array of treatment services than the state has offered in the past. And DeVore has to do it while restoring morale in a department that has become mired in a culture of failure, he said.

Lubow said what encourages him most about DeVore is that he has managed the crises but has not allowed them to derail his overall vision for what the department should look like. Lubow was particularly impressed that after the Hickey fugitives were caught, DeVore interviewed them to determine what went wrong.

"In previous administrations, I think that reform agenda would have gotten diverted by this kind of crisis, and everyone would have been working on building fences," Lubow said.

"But Don sees something like the escape from Hickey and tries to figure out why it is that this occurred and what does it mean about the department's policies and operations as opposed to saying, 'How much taller should the fence be?'

"If the fence needs to be taller, he'd build a taller fence, I'm sure," Lubow added. "But I don't think that's why the kids escaped."


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