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Failures of DJS anger officials

The Baltimore Sun

State legislators said yesterday they were outraged - but not surprised - by a Department of Juvenile Services review that revealed more than 100 examples of caseworkers who have failed to contact the young offenders they are supposed to be supervising.

"As it is currently being run, DJS is a threat to public safety," said state Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat. "Having kids with violent offenses and violent cases and not knowing where they are? That's a threat to public safety."

Muse and other senators called for more legislative involvement - but some weren't sure what they can do to overhaul a department with a decades-long history of chaos and mismanagement.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the DJS will "certainly" be among the topics that his Judicial Proceedings Committee discusses in meetings over the summer. But he said he is "wrestling" with what the legislature can do, given that laws already on the books are not being followed.

The reaction followed a report yesterday in The Sun detailing results from the first half of an unprecedented internal review of all 2,000 city DJS cases. The rest are slated for review early next month and will be followed by meetings between DJS officials and the city's 129 caseworkers and 22 supervisors.

DJS Secretary Donald W. DeVore, who initiated and participated in the review, said other areas, including Prince George's County and Baltimore County, can expect a similar process.

State Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and juvenile justice reform advocate, praised DeVore for "shining a light on what's going on in his agency."

"It's not a pleasant task when the agency is as dysfunctional as this has been," Zirkin said.

Mayor Sheila Dixon also said yesterday through a spokesman that she is "pleased that they are doing the review."

DeVore has said he is "very concerned" about what he has learned so far and would likely push for more training, department policy changes and redeployment of resources. Some staff changes might be necessary, he said this week, adding that the inquiry is "not a witch hunt."

The findings in the review include a caseworker who failed to maintain contact with a juvenile determined to be at high risk of committing another crime and an entire unit of caseworkers that went unsupervised when a manager took an extended leave of absence.

The documents provided to The Sun are incomplete and do not give details about the juvenile offenders' crimes.

DeVore, selected 15 months ago by Gov. Martin O'Malley, said he initiated the review because he wanted to better understand how the agency works and doesn't work. It also comes after news reports of juveniles under DJS supervision who were killed or went on to be charged as adults with murder.

Muse said that while he appreciates the steps DeVore has taken, "You can't study yourself and come out with an objective opinion."

The senator has twice proposed legislation for an independent study of the department and said he will try again next session.

Department spokeswoman Tammy Brown said any additional reviews would be "duplicative" and unnecessary. And DeVore said he wants more time to see the effects of changes he has already made.

Last summer, he created the department's first Office of Quality Assurance and Accountability. He also launched a fatality review committee.

In June, DeVore chose Walter Jackson, a senior DJS employee who had not worked in Baltimore, to oversee operations in the city. Two of Jackson's four assistant directors also are new to Baltimore. Four more caseworkers were recently added to the department's Plaza Office, which the review found to have some of the biggest deficiencies.

Jackson said he was "shocked" to find a lack of accountability in the department's Baltimore offices. He said annual employee reviews were not being done.

"We can't hold people accountable if we have never told them what their deficiencies are," Jackson said.

Jackson said he has worked to repair damaged or nonexistent relationships between the DJS and city agencies, such as the Police Department, the Health Department, and the judicial system.

Attorneys, judges and advocates said yesterday they have noticed an improvement in communication with the DJS, but they said that obstacles remain.

For example, Assistant State's Attorney Janet Hankin, a juvenile prosecutor, said confidentiality issues prevent the DJS from easily obtaining information from the school system about an offender's truancy history - important information for the court in determining what services a child needs.

DeVore said this week that he believes his reforms and the review of cases make the department "poised to be able to continue to make necessary changes."

Zirkin and Frosh also said they were optimistic.

"There's got to be a way we can fight through this mess," Frosh said. "I'm glad Secretary DeVore is not shrinking from the task. But it's still hard to get around the fact that we're not doing the job we should be doing for these kids."


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