Juvenile Services chief vows change
Md. task force is studying reforms after criticism of strip-searches and shackling
Maryland Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed pledged Thursday to change his department’s policies and move to limit the use of strip-searches and shackles on young people held in state facilities.
Abed, speaking at the first meeting of a task force studying the state’s treatment of juveniles, said his agency has identified several ways to limit shackling and strip-searches and asked that they be included in the panel’s formal recommendations.
“I do think there needs to be change,” Abed told the 18-member panel, which includes state lawmakers, advocates for children, public defenders, union representatives, and corrections and juvenile services staff members.
The department’s recommendations include limiting the use of shackles when youths are transported by staff for home visits and not strip-searching them after attorney visits or appearances in court.
Juveniles Services officials outlined some of the proposals in a report to the legislature in July. Abed said his department has revised policies as recently as July to limit the use of shackles in medical emergencies after a girl was taken to a hospital in shackles when she suffered a miscarriage.
The task force is scheduled to meet through November, vote on policy recommendations and present them to Gov. Larry Hogan and the legislature for consideration in December.
The review panel was established through a bill filed in the last General Assembly session that sought to limit the department’s use of strip-searches and shackles.
The Baltimore Sun reported in March that the department routinely strip-searches and shackles the youths in its care. The youths range in age from 11 to 20.
The department has argued that the practices are necessary to maintain safety and security in its 14 facilities. Advocates for children and medical professionals have said that the practices are inhumane, have been used indiscriminately and in some instances violated constitutional rights.
In a tense moment Thursday, Maryland’s chief public defender, Paul DeWolfe, grilled Abed on whether his department’s philosophy aligned with that of the Maryland Judiciary, which adopted a resolution last year that discourages the shackling of juveniles in court.
The resolution stated that shackling youth undermined the rehabilitative intent of the juvenile system and the youths’ constitutional rights, and further traumatized a vulnerable population.
DeWolfe said the resolution was a “gamechanger with regard to the dignity of our children.”
Abed said the department has followed judges’ orders to unshackle juveniles in their courtrooms. He also defended the department’s treatment of children. “I, and this department, respect the dignity of kids,” he said. “We also have to balance the safety of the facilities, which is different than a courtroom.”
Denise Henderson, who represents the union for department staff members on the task force, said driving youths in transport vans poses challenges. She said a youth she was transporting kicked the back of a van open on the highway and she was unable to pull over. “It’s a serious safety issue,” she said.
Nick Moroney, head of the state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, pointed out that the department’s policies on using restraints inside its facilities allow discretion. For years, the monitoring unit has recommended that the department restrain only juveniles who pose a safety risk to themselves or others.
In its most recent report, monitors and the department agreed on two instances in which girls were restrained improperly and in which staff might not have exercised proper discretion.
At the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center, a maximum-security facility in Laurel, a pregnant girl reported one night that she was bleeding heavily and believed she was having a miscarriage.
Two nurses disagreed on whether the girl should be taken to a hospital and said they had to call a supervisor. Twenty minutes later, both nurses and a direct-care staff member saw a fetus in the toilet. Even then, a nurse denied pleas for the girl to be taken to a hospital.
Ninety minutes later, the nurses called 911. When medics arrived, they prepared the girl for transport to the hospital with handcuffs and shackles.
Department policy exempts some who are pregnant from shackling, but staff members said they did not apply to the girl because she was no longer pregnant.
The department agreed that restraints were not necessary in that instance and said it had eliminated the requirement for restraints in medical situations unless needed for the safety of the youth or others.