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Quick and Dirty

Go to Your Cell

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 4/27/2005

Homeless and parentless children charged with criminal offenses are more severely treated by Maryland’s juvenile justice system than are children with families, an East Baltimore child-welfare advocate says.

Ameejill Whitlock, special-needs employment advocate for the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, made the accusation last week in connection with the case of a 16-year-old boy named Justin, whom Whitlock says has been incarcerated for more than four months at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center while awaiting adjudication on a theft charge.

“The only reason he’s currently locked up is because he doesn’t have parents,” Whitlock says. “Which is quite disgusting.”

Whitlock says she first met Justin in January at his arraignment before the Baltimore City Juvenile Court. At the request of his court-appointed social worker, Whitlock says she visited him again last week at the Gay Street detention facility, where he has been incarcerated ever since, and she learned about his situation through conversations with the boy and his social worker.

Justin is a ward of the state, but has frequently run away from foster care and other arrangements made by the Department of Social Services, Whitlock says. Because he has no current custodial placement, Justin is effectively serving time for a crime for which he has not been sentenced, and which does not usually carry an incarceration punishment if found guilty, Whitlock says.

A veteran advocate on behalf of children involved with the juvenile justice system, Whitlock says she routinely observes harsher treatment meted out to children without families, or whose families have been denied custody of their children.

“If a young person goes into the courtroom with a family, they are treated totally different than are young people who are already part of the system,” Whitlock says.

Juvenile records are confidential, and City Paper has not been able to independently confirm Whitlock’s claims about Justin’s situation, other than to verify that he is a “current client” of the Office of the Public Defender for the Juvenile Court Division.

While he wouldn’t speak about Justin’s specific case, Judge Martin Welch of the city juvenile court denied that familial status has any bearing on the detention status of children charged with criminal offenses. Welch acknowledged that a minor theft charge would typically not warrant a prehearing detention (or jail sentence if the defendant is found guilty), but he said that other factors—such as whether the defendant is a flight risk—play into the decision about whether to keep a child incarcerated before his or her adjudication hearing.

Of the 100 children typically in detention at the Gay Street facility, Welch says about 5 percent are in Justin’s situation—wards of the state who do not have a foster or group-home placement.

The responsibility of finding homes for these children, Welch says, lies with the Maryland Department of Social Services.

DSS declined specific comment about this story, but spokesman Norris West says the department handles a caseload of about 10,000 children statewide—7,000 in Baltimore City alone—and that children who frequently run away from their state-assigned living arrangements are a perennial challenge.

Justin’s disposition hearing was finally held on April 26. Such a hearing would ordinarily be open to the public, but it was closed at the request of Justin’s public defender, Kara Donaldson.

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