Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article failed to fully identify Nick Moroney, director of the state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, and used an out-of-date title for Lindsay Rosenthal, initiative director of Ending Girls’ Incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice. This article has been updated.
By Steph Quinn, Capital News Service
Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services will relocate girls awaiting court hearings or long-term placement this month from a single unit of the Cheltenham Youth Detention Center, a facility that previously housed only boys, to a center the agency says will house all girls in the agency’s residential care.
The move is designed to correct problems highlighted in a series of reports by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit in the state Office of the Attorney General. The reports revealed that four moves of detained girls and one move of girls in long-term placement over seven months in 2022 disrupted school, led to longer and more frequent periods of confinement and isolation, delayed medical services and exposed girls to sexual harassment.
But it’s unclear whether the change to an all-girl facility will impact the inequities experienced by girls in Maryland’s youth detention system.
“They just treat these girls like chattel, moving them constantly from one place to another without thinking of how it will impact them,” a staffer told a JJMU investigator in early 2023.
“They are just replicating the streets here, it’s like survival every day,” said a mental health therapist to an investigator during the same period. While all DJS long-term placement facilities are meant to offer treatment, the therapist told the investigator that the facility was too “short-handed” to do so.
“You can’t call it treatment … because there is not treatment going on,” the therapist said.
A 19-year-old at the facility, the Victor Cullen Center in rural northern Frederick County, said to an investigator, “There is nothing treatment-oriented about this program.”
DJS has housed detained girls from most of the state at Cheltenham and all girls in long-term committed placement at Cullen since October 2022. The department said that after girls at Cheltenham are moved to the Western Maryland Children’s Center in Hagerstown later this month, girls committed by the courts to DJS care will join them “at a later date.” Boys currently detained at WMCC will be moved to DJS residential facilities closest to their home communities, the department said. The department also indicated that WMCC staff are receiving training in “gender-responsive programming and trauma-informed care.”
Girls and young women comprise a small portion of youth confined in DJS detention and treatment centers. For fiscal year 2022, DJS reported average daily populations of 10 girls in detention and 12 in court-ordered committed placement. The number of girls sent to detention from juvenile court in the course of a given year is much higher, though it has decreased each year since 2018, from 437 to 91 in 2022.
In the 2022 fiscal year, DJS reported, 5 percent of all female intake cases involved a felony, while 4.2 percent involved a crime of violence. In just over 80 percent of female intakes, the most serious offense alleged was a misdemeanor.
The department’s repeated moves of detained and committed girls in 2022 followed over a decade of debate and activism about how DJS should serve girls in its custody.
In March 2022, DJS closed the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center in Laurel and moved detained girls to the Alfred D. Noyes Children’s Center in Rockville, which the department had refurbished to serve as a girls’ facility. The monitoring unit had been calling for Waxter’s closure since 2007, stating that it was “virtually impossible to improve the physical plant sufficiently to make it suitable for a secure detention program.” A 2010 bill in the House of Delegates that would have closed Waxter died in committee.
The Juvenile Services secretary at the time, Donald DeVore, told CNS he couldn’t close Waxter because it would mean placing girls in a facility with boys.
“If I close Waxter, the other facilities I have are for boys. Where do I put the girls? I would hate to stuff them in two wings (in a facility) where I have boys,” DeVore told CNS in 2010.
Just one month after the move to Noyes, the girls were moved again, this time into a 12-cell unit at Cheltenham after an air handler unit caught fire. The girls returned to Noyes in late May but were moved back to Cheltenham in October, this time to address a staffing shortage that had reached a crisis level. Cheltenham staff had been working back-to-back double shifts to reach the level of coverage required by departmental policy.
Girls at Cheltenham awaiting court-ordered secure placement were sent to Cullen, the center in Frederick County.
Keeping girls and boys separated at Cheltenham created new problems:
- Delayed medical care: Girls at Cheltenham did not have access to the facility infirmary because boys are housed there. A girl experiencing withdrawal symptoms in early 2023 was transported from Cheltenham to WMCC in Hagerstown, almost 100 miles away, because her condition required monitoring.
- Disrupted school: Persistent staff shortages at Cheltenham led to shortened or canceled school days. A special education teacher who had taught at Noyes quit in late 2022 after several years of service, partly due to her increased commute to Cheltenham with no definite end date, according to JJMU.
- Increased isolation and confinement: During a COVID-19 outbreak in late 2022, a lack of space to quarantine girls meant that girls who tested positive isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day for five to seven days, according to the monitoring unit. After seven days isolating in her cell, one girl “destroyed her room.” Staff asked another youth to comfort the girl from the hallway.
- Heightened conflict between girls: Staff separated girls into groups that took turns in a dayroom and small TV room, as well as going to school, to manage tensions. One girl told a JJMU investigator that all the noise made her feel anxious. She said, “It’s so crazy here. It’s so hard to concentrate in school because it is so loud, and loud noises are my trigger.” A pregnant girl who was assaulted twice indicated, “Me and my child feel threatened.”
- Exposed girls to sexual harassment: Two girls reported in early 2023 that a boy made repeated lewd comments and gestures when they were all in school. The boy moved his hand over his crotch and told the girls to perform a sexual favor and referred to the girls pleasuring themselves with tampons.
In its report on the first quarter of 2023, JJMU wrote, “Relegating detained girls and young women to a single unit in a secure detention facility set up to serve boys and young men indicates a lack of appropriate planning and dedication of resources and arguably demonstrates a casual disregard for the well-being of girls in DJS custody.”
At Cullen, shortages and lack of continuity of staff interfered in girls’ mental health care, according to JJMU’s report for the second quarter of 2023. The report described how one girl who experienced suicidal ideation was “ejected” from the program at Cullen and sent to a secure detention center for a month to “stabilize her.” The girl had told staff that she thought no one loved her and that she had nowhere to go after Cullen.
Nick Moroney, director of the state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit; DJS, and other advocates of girls in the youth legal system agree that a new facility for girls is not the way to provide genuine treatment.
DJS acknowledged in its response to JJMU’s first quarter 2023 report – the first of the new administration – that girls’ needs were not being met at Cheltenham or Cullen, but said that the number of girls in its residential facilities – 13 in secure detention and 4 in commitment on June 1, 2023 – was too small “to invest a large amount of resources into correctional facilities dedicated to girls.”
“The answer is not simply to provide dedicated space and gender specific treatment, although those things are important,” DJS wrote in its response. “It is the institutional model itself that is failing these young women.”
Moroney said, “We feel that if new facilities are built, there will be a temptation to fill those facilities.”
Lindsay Rosenthal, initiative director of Ending Girls’ Incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice, said the nature of incarceration runs counter to treatment for and recovery from trauma.
“Healing from trauma, which is fundamentally about someone having lost power and lost agency, is about doing everything that we can to give back agency and to give back power and to support choice and to support self determination, and everything about mandating a young person to be in a facility or treatment program is counter to that,” Rosenthal said.
In the Maryland House Judiciary Committee meeting in September, DJS Secretary Vincent Schiraldi voiced the aim of expanding Maryland’s range of services for youth, which he told lawmakers has deteriorated over the past eight years.
“The continuum of residential options and community options has atrophied over time. I think we overuse residential treatment facilities – our DJS residential facilities and group homes – and I think we need to broaden that more,” Schiraldi said.
But justice reform advocates differ on whether the department is equipped to divert girls to community-based services and treatment.
Schiraldi told lawmakers that DJS has adequate resources to develop Maryland’s community-based offerings.
But JJMU indicated in its first quarter 2023 report that there is “a shortage and lack of variety and specialization” in Maryland’s community-based programming for girls.
Moroney said that although relocating incarcerated girls to their own facility is a positive step, corrections-oriented facilities are not suitable spaces for young people to receive treatment.
“We would prefer that the girls not be incarcerated in the first place,” Moroney said. “But I guess if courts and the police cause kids to go to a jail-like situation, then having their own place is a better situation than being shoehorned into a boys’ place.”