Closing of girls' facility urged

The Baltimore Sun

The state's primary facility for delinquent girls is so dilapidated and unsafe that it should be closed, according to Maryland's juvenile justice monitor.

In a report released yesterday, monitors said girls at the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel are housed in "grim, prison like cells"; bathrooms there are a mess; and mold and mildew are prevalent in the building.

"The Waxter Center is not safe or appropriate for the housing of youths," the report by the Attorney General's Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit states.

The recommendation to close Waxter is part of a broader report on the physical condition of several facilities that house youths who have been found guilty of crimes or are awaiting court hearings after arrests.

The report includes color photographs showing youths at the facilities sleeping in hallways in long plastic containers called "boats," broken toilets in bathrooms, mildewed showers, collapsing ceilings in dining halls, rodent and insect infestation, and other problems.

"I don't think the public generally understands this is where children in Maryland go" after their arrests, said Marlana R. Valdez, director of the monitoring unit.

The report states that "deplorable conditions in Maryland's juvenile facilities ... result from many years of severe neglect by the state of Maryland, the public's ignorance of these conditions, and the 'forgotten status' to which we relegate children who have broken the law."

Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Services, said the agency is working diligently to improve conditions at Waxter and other juvenile facilities.

For example, she said, the state is spending $600,000 to rebuild bathrooms at Waxter. And a recent change in leadership at the facility has improved staff morale and the attitude of the girls held there, she said.

Brown disputed the monitor's assessment that Waxter is so dilapidated as to be unsafe. "Certainly, it wouldn't still be open if we thought it was unsafe for girls to be there," she said.

While the report specifically calls for replacing Waxter "at the earliest possible date," Valdez said that the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County and the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County also need to be closed and new facilities built on those sites.

Valdez said that she decided to focus more on the physical condition of facilities in the latest monitoring report, although it also deals with staffing levels and program shortcomings.

The report says only rudimentary maintenance and cosmetic repairs appear to have been done at many juvenile facilities - in some cases over a period of decades.

"If Maryland is to have any hope of rehabilitating delinquent youth and stanching the steady flow of children into the adult criminal system, immediate action must be taken to improve the facilities in which they are housed and the rehabilitative programs and services offered to them," the report says.

The report also describes wretched conditions at other facilities.

At Cheltenham, for example, youths are locked into cramped cells with heavy-steel, prison-style doors and high-placed windows clouded with age, the report says.

"Many of the cells house two youth, with one youth sleeping on the floor on a 'boat.' Youth have no personal space or ability to have personal belongings," the report states.

The report includes several pictures of Hickey showing a mildewed shower stall, a bleak recreation hall and a cluttered, unsightly kitchen area.

At the Maryland Youth Residence Center, a shelter in Baltimore, photos show how flooding and leaks from bathrooms caused the dining hall ceiling to collapse this year.

The report says the prompt repair, renovation or replacement of the state's "old and decrepit" facilities is "an essential first step toward systemic reform."

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