Monitor's Report Calls for More Improvements at Cheltenham After February Killing

By Alexis Gutter

ANNAPOLIS (October 8, 2010)—Inadequate security policies and equipment, and an overworked staff contributed to the dangerous environment that led to the February murder of a teacher at Cheltenham Youth Facility, according to a report released Thursday.

A 14-year-old resident of the facility has been charged with rape and murder by a juvenile court for the killing of Hannah Wheeling, who was found beaten to death.

Thursday's report, issued by the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, which evaluates facilities under the jurisdiction of the Department of Juvenile Services, calls for more security cameras, additional radios and panic alarms, among other measures.

But the report also says that lack of funding may affect the ability of the Department of Juvenile Services to improve conditions and prevent future tragedies.

For example, Cheltenham has a fence security system with sensors, but fence cameras cannot be installed until "the budget allows," the report states.

Donald DeVore, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, believes that safety throughout all Department facilities has become stronger since February, but concedes that there is always room for improvement, he wrote in a Wednesday letter to the Monitoring Unit.

The report comes on the heels of an audit of the Department of Juvenile Services released Wednesday that revealed failures in following policies and other administrative inefficiencies cost the state $3 million in Medicaid funding.

The Department has also been criticized for its management of the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center, the state's only public facility for detained and high-security girls. A May 2010 facility report by the Monitoring Unit recommended Waxter be closed for good.

The Department often attributes problems at Waxter to lack of funding.

In its reports, the Monitoring Unit recognizes that the Department has made at least some progress in fixing problems in many of its facilities.

There is more the Department can do to ensure that staff is trained properly and extra security plans are in place, said Angela Johnese, juvenile justice director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

"DJS is always responding to emergencies so they don't have a chance to work on better everyday functioning," Johnese said.

On the afternoon of her death, Wheeling requested a resident be sent to her classroom. Violating the policy that staff directly supervises all youth movement, the boy was sent without an escort.

Later that afternoon, staff supervised boys in the game room across the hall from Wheeling's classroom, but did not maintain constant sight and sound supervision of the boy and Wheeling, violating another policy.

Wheeling's death led the Department to fire two staff members, demote an administrator, suspend a supervisor and program manager, and reprimand staff members. The department has also provided safety and security training for staff and retrained the staff on Cheltenham-specific security policies.

But the report says more improvement is necessary for Cheltenham.

It says the facility did not have adequate security cameras essential to ensuring safety. There were no cameras in classrooms at the time of the killing, for example.

Funding is pending for the 90 cameras that have since been requested.

The monitoring unit also suggests that Cheltenham purchase panic alarms and enough radios so that all staff members can be properly equipped.

Beyond being properly equipped for optimum safety, the staff is too sparse to appropriately operate Cheltenham, according to the report.

"Shift coverage shortages, and resulting use of overtime to cover shifts, was pervasive throughout the entire Cheltenham facility before Ms. Wheeling's death and continued up to the time of writing this report," the report states.

Logs show that during the two-week pay period before Wheeling's death, employees worked 2,920 overtime hours - averaging to 26 hours per employee. However, based on interviews, overtime hours are not evenly distributed, as one employee worked 32 straight hours during that pay period.

There is no evidence that fatigue directly led to the supervision failures in Wheeling's death.

Overtime hours have not since decreased. Between April and July, the overtime average was 2,880 hours per pay period.

The report argues that "forced overtime and fatigue continue to pose a safety and security challenge at the facility."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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