Youths lost in juvenile system

The Baltimore Sun

One juvenile offender hasn't been seen by his caseworker since June. Another is "possibly in Florida." Still others are "AWOL" and should be arrested for violating probation.

And a handful of juvenile offenders in Baltimore "cannot be identified," meaning that their caseworkers aren't sure whom they are supposed to be supervising.

The state Department of Juvenile Services is halfway through an unprecedented review of its Baltimore case files, and Secretary Donald W. DeVore said he is "very concerned" about the results.

Details of the review have not been made public, but documents obtained by The Sun show the investigation has identified more than 100 juvenile offenders who have had no contact with their caseworkers in the past 90 days, as well as instances in which supervisors failed to monitor caseworkers.

The inspection of all 2,000 city case files was prompted in part by news reports of youths under department supervision who were killed or arrested on adult charges for violent crimes.

Among them was Farron Tates, 16, who was charged in January with murder. Weeks earlier, he had been convicted in city juvenile court of selling drugs and was sent home to live with his mother - a woman whom the Department of Juvenile Services did not realize had just been convicted of drug possession.

Last fall, Davon Qualls, 17, was killed around the corner from the friend's home where a juvenile judge had sent him to live. Despite the youth's three new arrests, Davon's caseworker did not deem him in violation of probation.

Farron and Davon were supposed to be under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Services, as were 10 of the 28 teenagers killed last year and one of the nine killed this year in Baltimore. Five of 20 teenagers charged with murder in 2006 were on probation or pretrial release to DJS at the time of their suspected crimes, according to a report by the Baltimore state's attorney's office. Prosecutors are still analyzing the 19 juveniles charged last year with murder.

Those statistics led DeVore to form a DJS fatality review committee and underlined the importance of conducting a large-scale case review - thought to be the first in the department's history. Half of the Baltimore case files were reviewed this month, with the other half to be completed early next month. DJS officials then will meet with Baltimore's 129 caseworkers and 22 supervisors to determine what steps need to be taken.

Other areas, including Prince George's County and Baltimore County, can expect a similar process, DeVore said.

The Sun obtained documents associated with the city case inspection that DeVore and about 40 DJS officials and administration-selected supervisors conducted April 5 and 6. Though not a complete analysis, the documents provide a rare look at a system that has long been criticized as overwhelmed and chaotic. The documents do not reveal details about the juveniles' crimes or their history in juvenile court.

Union officials said they fear the review will be used to unfairly punish caseworkers and perhaps even prompt mass firings.

"This is not a witch hunt," DeVore said. Once the citywide review is complete, staff training is likely to increase, unclear and inconsistent department policies might be modified and more resources could be deployed, he said. But he said that some staff changes might also be necessary.

"We won't accept 'the system' as being the only reason an employee isn't doing the work," he said.

DeVore, selected 15 months ago by Gov. Martin O'Malley to head the Department of Juvenile Services, said discussions with Baltimore DJS employees and previous reviews of select city cases prepared him for what he would find in a citywide review.

"We saw glimmers of brightness, but we also saw many cases that needed improvement," DeVore said. He said he was most disturbed by the number of juvenile offenders who had not been contacted by their caseworkers and about lax supervision.

Documents from the review show that managers are "failing to ensure cases are supervised" and that an entire unit went unsupervised when a manager took an extended leave of absence.

At the department's Southern Office, supervisors simply do not review case files, according to the documents. Urgent problems in that office included a juvenile who possibly had moved to Florida; a juvenile who had not seen his caseworker since Jan. 8, in spite of his requirement for two contacts monthly; and a juvenile "noncompliant with school."

Workload - a long-standing complaint that has led to lawsuits in recent years - is another systemic issue documented in the review. In two offices alone, nine caseworkers are responsible for more than 50 youths apiece, and three are responsible for more than 60.

DJS officials said the department does not have any guidelines as to how many cases an employee should handle, but they are researching the issue.

One caseworker who was responsible for 64 youths had a dozen cases with "urgent" problems, the documents show. The caseworker had no contact with those youths, including one who is a sex offender and one who is labeled as a "top 10" priority case, meaning he is likely to commit another crime.

Another caseworker was responsible for 66 youths. Among them was Tavon Burks, a 16-year-old fatally shot March 11 in Pimlico.

When a caseworker in the same office went on extended leave, a supervisor picked up her cases in addition to overseeing other caseworkers. That supervisor was responsible for Farron Tates, who went on to be charged as an adult with murder.

But DJS employees say that it is unfair to blame them when larger issues - such as poor training, heavy workload and improper supervision - are unresolved.

A caseworker who has been with the department for decades said she was demoted when a youth whose case she handled was killed on the streets of Baltimore. She asked not to be identified because DJS did not authorize her to speak publicly.

The teenager was among more than 50 she was supervising at the time and, she said, was one of her more cooperative charges.

When she saw his name in the police blotter, she said she was devastated. He'd apparently been the random victim of a robbery that turned fatal.

"You work with a kid and their family and there's a certain attachment," she said.

Then, when she was demoted - she said because of that incident - she was furious. Because personnel records are private, it was not possible to verify the reason for her demotion.

"How are you supposed to prevent a kid like that from being killed?" she asked. "Am I supposed to put on my cape?"

Although she was demoted, she said, her caseload had not decreased.

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