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Mobtown Beat

Juvenile Disservices

State Appoints Administrator With Troubled Background to Head Newly Reopened Youth Facility

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 11/28/2007

When Christopher Perkins, 38, was tapped this summer to become superintendent of the newly renovated Victor Cullen Academy for youth offenders, he promised a “culture of transparency” and an end to the coercive and often violent culture that has plagued Maryland’s juvenile detention system for decades.

Closed in 2002 and reopened in July after a $16 million overhaul, the Frederick County facility is the state’s first new residential facility for teenage offenders in more than 10 years. Perkins, a veteran administrator who relocated from Montana, brought with him a reputation for ambition and competence--just what Gov. Martin O’Malley was looking for. But some 2,000 miles away a legal dispute is unfolding in Montana that could shed light on allegations that Perkins--known in Big Sky Country as “the Colonel”--is an abusive juvenile-facility director who favors military-style discipline and a code of silence.

Next month, a judge in Lewis and Clark County in Montana will decide whether to unseal an investigative report by the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services regarding the Swan Valley Youth Academy, a facility that Perkins headed until December 2005. (Editor's Note: The report, released 12/12/2007, can be downloaded here.) A complaint filed by the Montana Advocacy Program (MAP), a nonprofit protection and advocacy corporation specializing in civil rights for disabled people, prompted the investigation. The complaint charges that, on Perkins’ watch, staff at Swan Valley abused children and committed “actions which constituted criminal behavior.” The state’s investigative report, according to MAP attorney Andree Larose, is in addition to a state-licensing survey by the same agency that is already public, and which led to Perkins’ departure and the Swan Valley facility’s closure in 2006.

“In my opinion, you’re going to want to see that report,” says Larose, explaining that her group is asking the court to balance the public’s right to know over various confidentiality privileges. “Even before the report, I felt there were credible allegations that were serious enough to warrant criminal investigation by the State Attorney General’s Office.”

Swan Valley Youth Academy is notorious in Montana. In 2005, MAP provided local authorities with information about specific allegations that Perkins physically assaulted a juvenile and promoted a violent employee named Jeff Wagner to a position of leadership after he, too, allegedly abused children.

In a letter to Lake County Attorney Robert Long dated Oct. 27, 2005, Larose described chilling allegations such as staff slamming children to the floor and forcing them to do excessive physical activity until they vomited. During the intake process, staff allegedly abused the teens--many of them already victims of abuse in their homes--with taunts such as “fucking pussy,” “faggot,” and “fatso,” telling them that they and their parents are losers.

The goal of such alleged abuse, according to MAP, is to break the kids down so they will submit to authority. In one instance, Larose’s letter states, after Wagner, a 200-pound ex-Marine, allegedly slammed a 125-pound teenager against a wall, “Colonel Perkins responded [to staff concerns] that this was how intake was done at Swan Valley.”

When contacted for this story, Perkins referred calls to the Department of Juvenile Services. In a brief interview on Tuesday, DJS Secretary Donald DeVore said he was unaware of either Montana report, and that the 22-member advisory board at Victor Cullen is “delighted with the job Perkins is doing.” The facility will house no more than 48 intermediate-level juvenile offenders, DeVore adds--“no rapists or murderers”--which is a change from its previous status as 174-resident military-style academy.

As superintendent of Victor Cullen, Perkins also gained an appointment by O’Malley to DJS’s Delinquency Prevention and Diversion Services Task Force. O’Malley’s appointments secretary, Jeanne Hitchcock, says the vetting process for Perkins was routine. DJS would be responsible for reviewing prior employment of potential appointees, she says, adding, “If they did that.” A DJS spokesperson would not confirm the vetting process, however. After DJS recommends an appointee, Hitchcock looks for potential conflicts of interest, proof of Maryland residency, and any “red flags,” including involvement in civil lawsuits or criminal matters. Potential appointees are asked to disclose any such matters on an “honor basis,” she adds.

The letter from Larose to the Lake County Attorney’s Office, which is redacted to protect the names of children and certain staff, casts a shadow on Perkins’ appointment and raises questions about the DJS hiring process. It describes one staff member telling another that he could not wait for a particular teenager to arrive, and that he was “going to break his fucking face.” Staff allegedly placed bets as to who could make the newest child residents puke first, the letter states.

Among the more serious charges are that staff at Swan Valley placed kids in seclusion for long periods of time and doctored seclusion logs. In early 2004, the letter states, Perkins slammed a child against a wall for not standing in the chow line, and in August 2004 he removed an abuse report from a child’s file after the child was forced to stand at attention for three hours on a hot day. “Colonel Perkins told [a staff member] that they needed to break down this kid,” Larose’s letter states, in asking for a criminal investigation.

Instead, Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services took action in response to Larose’s advocacy efforts. The department’s Quality Assurance Division investigated alleged licensing violations, and the Child and Family Services Division investigated allegations of child abuse. The licensing report, made public in 2006, found 19 violations, including that staff at Swan Valley harmed youth during the intake process, imposed inappropriate seclusion and restraints on children, failed to report abuse and an attempted suicide to state authorities, and in general failed to “ensure proper care, treatment and safety of the residents.”

Throughout the licensing report, an individual identified as “Staff #20” is described as an authority figure who required subordinates to alter restraint reports, failed to report serious incidents to authorities, and told state regulators that the program’s philosophy is to “break the kid down to build them up.” If the Montana judge unseals the investigative report by the Child and Family Services Division, the public could soon learn the identity of Staff #20 and the state’s official findings on allegations of abuse at Swan Valley on Perkins’ watch.

As it was, the licensing report led to a firestorm in Montana. In December 2005, Perkins was placed on administrative leave, according to then-acting director Mark Mizner-Welch, and though licensing authorities accepted Swan Valley’s plan of correction, by February 2006 the facility was nearly empty and staring at a $500,000 loss over the next six months. It closed for financial reasons, Mizner-Welch says, denying that child abuse occurred at Swan Valley.

“Licensing officials cleared us and we were moving forward, but Montana is a close-knit place, and the media frankly killed us,” he says. Asked whether Maryland officials ever contacted him or anyone at Swan Valley before hiring Perkins, Mizner-Welch replied no. “Did Maryland do its homework? I don’t know,” he says. “A Google search would’ve turned up a whole bunch of news stories.” Asked for a reaction to Perkins’ hiring, he chuckles and says, “I’m not surprised. He’s ambitious and professionally competent.”

Swan Valley was owned by Colorodo-based Cornerstone Programs Corp. Former Maryland official Joseph Newman founded the company in the late 1990s. Before that, Newman, deputy secretary of DJS from 1992 to ’94, operated a for-profit juvenile-detention services company called Rebound, which has a checkered past as well. According to a Dallas Morning News story last July, Colorado officials closed a Rebound facility in 1998 after a 13-year-old inmate committed suicide and state authorities found widespread problems with physical and sexual abuse. A Human Rights Watch report later found that the facility, the High Plains Youth Center, “fell short of reasonable, even minimal performance.” In 1997, the story states, Florida officials severed a contract with the Cypress Creek Juvenile Detention Facility, also owned by Rebound, for repeated problems including arrests of inmates for inciting a riot.

Rebound also ran Maryland’s Charles H. Hickey School in the early 1990s, a juvenile-detention facility recently known for the escape of 10 inmates last January, after former governor Robert Ehrlich closed much of the facility in 2005. Newman did not return calls for comment.

DJS Secretary DeVore says Victor Cullen is operating on a more modern therapeutic model than its predecessors--one that “has received rave reviews.” He says the facility is expected to be a leading example for facilities statewide. Perkins will play a key role, DeVore says, noting that “his work has been exemplary.”

One former Swan Valley staff member who does not place much faith in Perkins, or Newman for that matter, is a retired Air Force chaplain named Curtis Wallace. In a June 3, 2004, memo to Newman, Wallace, then a youth counselor at Swan Valley, warned that staff concerns about the abuse of children were met with threats of retaliation. “I hope that the evidence you have collected will be enough to make an informed decision on [Jeff] Wagner and [Chris] Perkins’ ability to work with youth in the future,” the memo said. “In my strongest opinion, [they] worked in tandem to create an environment exceedingly hostile to anyone who dared to question their methodology or challenge their abusive practices.”

Wallace told City Paper this week that he never observed any action or concern on Newman’s part in response to the 2004 memo. He found Newman’s tacit approval of Perkins and the leadership he displayed at Swan Valley disturbing. “These kids come from broken homes with authority issues,” Wallace says. “If you want someone handling them who is dictatorial in nature and who has a reputation for getting physical, Perkins is your man.”

Yet a completely different portrait of Perkins emerged in a Sun article last July, heralding the reopening of Victor Cullen as a bellwether for juvenile-detention facilities across the state. “We have to prove that we know what we’re doing, and that we can fundamentally offer an improved program for youth,” Perkins told a Sun reporter. “We’re dealing with kids whose lives are in the balance.”

PDF of Letter to Lake County Attorney
PDF of Licensing Investigation Deficiency Report

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Mobtown Beat archives

More Stories

"Vindication" for Chris Perkins? (2/4/2008)

Report Substantiates Abuse at Facility Run By Current Head of Victor Cullen Academy (12/13/2007)

The Colonel (12/12/2007)
New Details On Report Allege Child Abuse By Head Of Victor Cullen Academy

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