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Children's center making changes following report

May 15, 2004|By LAURA ERNDE

Shiny white porcelain bathroom fixtures were supposed to make the Western Maryland Children's Center feel more like home and less like a jail for young offenders awaiting trial.

Instead, youths broke the fragile toilet seats and used the knife-like shards as weapons.

Now, the state Department of Juvenile Services is adding up the cost of replacing the eight-month-old fixtures with industry-standard stainless steel.

No one was seriously injured at the center south of Hagerstown, but an independent monitor's report in March called it a "major crisis with regard to the health, safety and security of youth and staff."

The $8 million center was built to house dangerous young offenders from the four westernmost counties in Maryland while they await their court dates.

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It's closer to home than the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville, Md., and more intensive than the holdover facility off Jonathan Street in Hagerstown that had been used since 1979.

When the new center was designed, a high-level administrator in the department decided on the white porcelain fixtures, department spokeswoman LaWanda Edwards said.

The idea was to make the center feel a little less like an institution, she said.

Edwards is quick to note that the decision was made by the previous administration, headed by Gov. Parris Glendening.

Bob McElvie, program administrator at the center, said he raised a red flag about the safety of porcelain, but by then it was too late to change the design.

Four of the toilets were broken by youths who harmed or threatened to harm themselves and staff, the report said.

As a stopgap measure, the toilet seats were removed in December, McElvie said.

"From the day the seats were removed, there's been no other problems," he said.

If they desire, youths can use toilets with seats, which are limited to the shower rooms where staff can more easily supervise, he said.

"I don't view this as a long-term solution," McElvie said. "It's just a short-term adjustment."

The independent monitor's report recommended replacing all of the toilets and sinks with stainless steel.

"Though programming has been strong and the staff dedicated and well trained, the use of (porcelain) toilets and sinks creates an environment that is very dangerous to youth and staff, presenting a very serious health and safety concern," the March 22 report said.

The report also recommends replacing fixtures and furnishings that could be used in a suicide attempt. Those include the sink handles and desks with swing-out seats.

Edwards said the department is trying to decide the least expensive solution to keeping children and staff safe.

Stainless steel fixtures are an industry standard, said Kevin Wright, criminal justice professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

But Wright wouldn't fault juvenile authorities for trying something different to make the center look less like an institution.

"You should be pleased with that, even though this particular decision didn't pan out," he said.

Edwards said safety is the top priority of Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration.

Detention centers, even for juveniles, should not be made too comfortable.

"We don't want them to come back," she said.

Despite the building deficiencies, McElvie said he is proud of the work his staff is doing.

Each youth undergoes a thorough evaluation to check for substance abuse and evaluate their mental and physical health along with their education level.

"We strive through our philosophy to get to know the youth, not just hold them for 30 days," McElvie said.

The results of the evaluation, along with recommendations for placement, follow the youths whether they are sent back to their families or on to other programs in the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, he said.

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