Unknown illness strikes Md. juvenile offenders

The Baltimore Sun

Three juvenile offenders from Maryland were among 50 youths and three staff members who fell ill with with nausea, vomiting and breathing problems at a reform school near Des Moines, Iowa, over the weekend, authorities said yesterday.

What triggered the illnesses at Woodward Academy late Friday remained unknown yesterday, but most of the victims were treated and released from nearby hospitals by early Saturday, said Bill Dean, the school's deputy director.

Authorities initially suspected carbon monoxide poisoning but have not found a source and do not believe it can "be exclusively carbon monoxide," Dean said.

The school is continuing to work with Iowa Health Department officials, emergency responders and other agencies to determine the source of the illness, he said.

"They have ruled out food-borne or virus-type issues," Dean said.

"We are continuing to monitor air-quality controls."

The three Maryland youths who fell ill are among six housed at the 213-bed Woodward Academy, said Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

The state pays the privately run program in Iowa $181.50 a day, or $5,500 a month, to house and treat juvenile offenders from Maryland, she said.

Maryland began sending troubled youths to more out-of-state treatment programs following the closure in late 2005 of part of the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County -- a facility that juvenile advocates and regulators had long criticized as unsafe and ineffective.

Juvenile judges said that sending youths to secure facilities in other states was their only option because there were no suitable programs left in Maryland.

About 120 juvenile offenders were housed in out-of-state treatment programs as of Friday, records show.

Brown said Maryland juvenile services inspectors visit out-of-state facilities quarterly to review their operations and found no problems at Woodward on a three-day visit last month.

The first youth Maryland sent to Woodward Academy, in October 2005, was among those who fell ill Friday.

He was 17 when he was sent there and is now 19, according to his grandmother, Alberta Diggs.

Juvenile records are not public. Diggs and an attorney for the family have said only that her grandson had several run-ins with the law for what they described as relatively minor offenses.

The family's lawyer said he was in need of mental health treatment that should be provided in Maryland.

Diggs said she received a call shortly after midnight Friday that her grandson, who suffers from asthma, was having trouble breathing and had been taken to a hospital to be checked.

"He's doing fine now," Diggs said.

In 2005, Diggs complained about how Maryland officials handled her grandson's removal to Iowa.

But she said yesterday that she's been pleased with his progress at Woodward Academy and is impressed by the facility and its staff.

Linda Heisner, deputy director of Advocates for Children & Youth, said placing youths in distant states or in facilities in rural areas that are far removed from their communities is bad public policy on several fronts.

Youths who are sent away have too little contact with family members and face a difficult transition back to the community, she said.

"We urge the governor to bring the youths back into the state and to develop ... community-based programming and earlier intervention to keep them from having to enter residential treatment," Heisner said.



Related coverage at baltimoresun.com/juveniles

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