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The Nose

Don’t Tell a Soul

Posted 5/4/2005

Last week, an East Baltimore child-welfare advocate claimed in this paper that children who are wards of the state are more severely treated by Maryland’s juvenile justice system than are children in the custody of their families (Quick and Dirty, April 27).

To illustrate her claim, Ameejill Whitlock of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition described the pending case of a 16-year-old boy she said had been locked up for four months at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on a minor theft charge that would have normally warranted mere probation—had he been fortunate enough to have a family.

The day after the story was published, a distraught man claiming to be the boy’s father called City Paper to set the record straight. His son was neither a charity case nor an orphan, the man said, but an “extreme manipulator” with a criminal habit in need of medical—and disciplinary—treatment. The boy had hoodwinked Whitlock just as he had plenty of gullible adults before her, the man told the Nose. That’s why he had requested the state Department of Social Services take temporary custody of his son.

“You need to spend the time in the City Paper on kids that come from deprived families,” the father said. “[He] is not deprived.”

In the meantime, the teen—urban orphan or suburban outlaw—was found guilty of stealing a wristwatch and finally transferred from Baby Booking (as the city’s Juvenile Justice Center is known on the streets) to the Maryland Youth Residence Center, a low-security residence in Govans for delinquent boys whom the court has deemed are not dangerous.

(Sidebar: At this point the Nose must apologize to Judge Martin P. Welch, head robe at city juvenile court, for applying in the above paragraph adult words to kiddie proceedings. As Welch has previously opined to The Sun in print—and more recently exhorted the Nose in person—Maryland children are never “defendants” who are “charged” at a “trial” with a “crime” and “sentenced” to “prison” when found “guilty.” Rather, they are “respondents” to an “alleged offense” whose “delinquency” is tested at an “adjudicatory hearing” and then “disposed” to a “placement” if the court finds that “facts were sustained.” Apart from their offense of verbosity—what, you think newsprint grows on trees?—we find that such soft jargon, though designed to avoid stigmatizing children with the “taint of criminality,” belies the harsh reality of modern juvenile justice. Before we were kicked out of the 16-year-old’s “disposition hearing” last week, we caught a glimpse of him looking pretty well tainted in jail-issue sweats and chained at the ankles and wrists. Sweet-smelling euphemisms won’t make that rose any less a spade, if you catch the drift of our mixed metaphor, Yerronor.)

So then, is Ameejill Whitlock guilty of excessive sympathy (a crime not unheard of among Charm City do-gooders), or is this case indeed evidence that children in state care fare worse when arrested?

The jury’s still out—and perhaps permanently sequestered there—thanks to the confidentiality shields wrapped securely around juveniles. If it weren’t for an anonymous call from a concerned state Department of Juvenile Services staffer who attended the boy’s hearing, the Nose wouldn’t know anything about what transpired inside Master Zakia Mahasa’s courtroom. And if it weren’t for an irate father understandably upset at having his son described as “parentless,” we might not know that the boy had parents to begin with.

Of course, the child in question might have something illuminating to say about the whole affair, but whoever his legal guardian is these days—whether mother Maryland or biological father—both have declined our request to speak with him.

Ironically, it may be that the well-intentioned laws protecting a state ward’s privacy are the same ones that prevent children from bearing witness to their treatment by the state. And given the unpleasant discoveries recently published in The Sun about the sort of people the state of Maryland employs to look after children in group homes, one might well wonder about the desirability of such confidentiality shields.

“This is a good case study to raise the issue,” says Barbara Babb, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in juvenile justice issues. “Because here you really have someone who can’t speak out. To some extent, I’m not sure confidentiality in situations like this does us any good, and it may do more harm than good, because all sorts of accusations can get made.”

Until the competing accusations sort themselves out, readers can take some comfort in knowing that the boy is now in the “nurturing environment” administered by Maryland Youth Residence Center executive director Emmett Edwards. “We don’t use no mechanical restraints here,” Edwards assures us. “And the only weapon we got is talking them to death.”

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