Indie Monitoring Unit Shines Light on Maryland JJ

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About 15 states now have some sort of child advocacy office, an entity charged with monitoring the conditions and/or outcomes of youths who come in contact with state or county-run systems.

Some of the monitors are stand-alone offices that operate independent of the agencies they monitor. Others, like Texas’ Office of the Independent Ombudsman, are asked to investigate specific complaints or conditions. A handful of monitors are responsible for watch-dogging both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Few, if any, are as prolific or periodic as Maryland’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit (JJMU), which recently released its first-quarter­ report on Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) facilities. By our count from the JJMU website, it was the 63rd report in 10 years for a unit with six staff members and less than $1 million. So JJ Today figured it would be worth laying out exactly how the unit operates in the state.

JJMU was created in 1999 in response to an abuse scandal involving some of the state’s juvenile boot camps. It was first established by executive order of then-Gov. Parris Glendening (D), and gained a more permanent hold later through enabling legislation.

The staff currently includes five full-time monitors who serve JJMU Director Marlana Valdez. It is housed at the Office of the Attorney General (AG), although it is also independent of that office. An assistant AG is assigned to provide legal advice to the staff.

The mission is to report to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), DJS Secretary Don DeVore and the Maryland General Assembly on the “treatment of and services provided to” youth under DJS jurisdiction. This includes issues such as abuse, length of stay in facilities, staff shortages and DJS monitoring.

The unit has produced at least five reports each year on Maryland’s juvenile facilities since 2003 – “at least” being the key phrase because there were a number of years when the unit cranked out a few special reports on top of its standard output.

The special reports will often come in response to a specific incident, such as the time that a juvenile lost two teeth after being pushed into a stack of chairs by a worker at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. But the quarterly reports are what really set JJMU apart from other independent monitors.

Two of the four quarterly releases include a monitor’s assessment for each of DJS’ 27 facilities. There used to be a building-by-building breakdown every quarter, but Valdez said she felt like semi-annual updates in the first and third quarters coupled with macro-view reports in the even quarters were a better use of resources.

Each of the facility reports includes a breakdown of the facility in the following categories:

  • Population
  • Staffing
  • Safety and Security
  • Physical Plant and Basic Services
  • Education
  • Rehabilitative and Recreational Programming
  • Medical and Behavioral Health
  • Youth Advocacy, Internal Monitoring and Investigation
  • Recommendations

All of JJMU’s work, Valdez said, is sent to DJS for review before it is publicly released. DJS also has the opportunity to issue a public response to the report and almost always does, posting responses on the JJMU website.

The body of work is staggering when you consider that the unit’s budget is about $850,000 and it employs six people. As with most historical juvenile justice points, there is no way to prove this, but the unit could be making present-day Maryland DJS the most transparent juvenile justice system in the history of the field.

Think about it: twice a year, there is a public rundown of what is and is not happening in every single facility operated by DJS. The review is not done by the department, so there is little concern over the integrity of the facts. What’s more, there is almost always a formal response to the information by the department. And that is before the macro-reports and special reports in response to particular incidents are filed.

Judging by the sheer quantity of the information, it’s hard to imagine a statewide collection of facilities about which more is known than today’s DJS buildings in Maryland. If there is any comparable example of periodic, comprehensive reporting on a system, by all means e-mail JJ Today and we will run a list of any others that warrant study.

“I’m incredibly proud of our monitors’ work,” Valdez said. “They are all very talented and work tirelessly.”

At the end of the day, the value of such an undertaking is measured by asking: what changed? Valdez pointed to a few areas where she said she feels the unit has had an impact, starting with her belief that there is significantly “less child abuse in facilities than there was 10 or even 5 years ago.” That is, of course, a central measure because a decrease in abuse means that there were likely improvements in a number of areas, including the training of staff and the timely movement of juveniles.

“Girls’ services have improved,” she said. “There’s [funding] in the works to establish two staff-secure residential programs for girls and the Waxter population has decreased.” (Waxter is a troubled facility that nearly everyone agrees should be closed.)

Perhaps the most high-profile monitoring achievement was the finding that nearly 90 percent of youth who came through DJS’ Victor Cullen Center were rearrested shortly after release. DJS had designs on replicating the Cullen model with another facility, but those plans were tabled after the unit revealed the high recidivism rate.

In general, though, JJMU’s findings and recommendations do not carry as much innate authority as monitors in other states. That’s in part because it was not created out of a consent decree that is overseen by a judge, thus there is no person of authority who can compel DJS to act on recommendations.

That likely vexes Valdez from time to time, and is almost certainly is of constant relief to DJS Secretary DeVore. Valdez acknowledges that there is a “natural tension” between her office and DJS, which is apparent if you read the department’s responses to the JJMU reports. “And that’s the way it should be,” she added.

But assessing the system simply for the benefit of information might be what keeps independent monitoring alive in Maryland’s JJ system for the long haul. And despite the inevitable friction, Valdez said, the relationship between DJS and JJMU has greatly improved.

“We’re meeting with the secretary every six weeks and participating in strategic planning for girls’ services,” Valdez said. “I think we are seeing more of a collaborative effort, more openness to working together than in past administrations.”

DeVore said in an e-mail to JJ Today that he does recognize the value of an independent monitor, particularly in a state where reform is afoot.

“I believe that having an independent juvenile justice monitor gives the public the assurance that an outside group of experts is assessing the progress of the juvenile services agency,” DeVore said. “For that reason, I believe that there is a benefit to an independent monitoring group who provides appropriate reviews and constructive criticism to the juvenile justice agency.” 

The 2010 first-quarter report noted a high number of runaways and a low number of graduates from the Silver Oak Academy, a new DJS’ facility operating on the grounds of the now-defunct Bowling Brook Academy.

DJS agreed with the unit that things had not run smoothly out of the gate at Silver Oak, which is operated by a for-profit company called Rite of Passage. But both sides agree that the program deserves more time to develop, because few of the juveniles from year one actually were subject to Rite of Passage’s proposed nine-month plan.

One thing is certain: progress at Silver Oak – or the lack of it – will unfold in relatively plain sight.