Victor Cullen Center (copy)

The Victor Cullen Center in Sabillasville.

While the number of assaults at a state-run youth detention center in Sabillasville decreased in the first quarter of 2017, at least one report detailed a staff member trying to assault a youth.

The youth, a boy being held in the Victor Cullen Center, kicked and bit at employees who tried to restrain him after he refused to return to his cell, according to the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit’s most recent report, released June 5. During the struggle, one staff member apparently became violent, according to the report.

“The staffer responded to the youth’s aggression by trying to punch the youth twice,” the report states. “Another staffer and two youth intervened and attempted to prevent the staffer from having contact with the youth.”

Even after the youth had been restrained, a second staff member apparently “intensified the force” of the restraint, forcefully bending the youth forward and “causing the youth to fall to the ground,” according to the report.

The JJMU is an independent agency formed under the state Office of the Attorney General in order to audit Maryland Department of Juvenile Services facilities, according to its website. The quarterly reports include an analysis of average daily populations and reported assaults and restraints at DJS facilities, among other data.

In its response to the report, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services pointed out that three staff members had tried to counsel the youth for about 30 minutes before resorting to physical restraint. That said, some aspects of the restraint were deemed inappropriate, according to the response.

“Staff that responded inappropriately were addressed administratively,” the agency’s response reads in part.

While the DJS’ official response to the incident in the report indicated that at least one staff member involved was fired as a result of the incident, Audra Harrison, a DJS spokeswoman, clarified the report when reached for comment Wednesday.

“The staff member was separated from employment through voluntary resignation rather than termination,” Harrison wrote in a statement responding to The Frederick News-Post’s questions.

Overall, incidents of physical restraint and incidents where youth were restrained using handcuffs or shackles dropped in the first quarter of 2017 compared with previous years, according to the report.

The most dramatic decrease came in incidents where youth were held in seclusion from other children, which fell to just nine in the first quarter of 2017, according to the report. By comparison, seclusion was used 40 times in the first quarter of 2015 and 29 times in the first quarter of 2016.

Incidents of assault, both youth fighting other youth and youth fighting with staff members, also dropped in the first quarter of 2017 compared with the same time periods in 2016 and 2015, according to the report.

Nick Moroney, director of the JJMU, did not respond to calls seeking comment by Wednesday, but the JJMU has previously linked incidents of assaults and restraints directly to the number of youth held in the facility. The JJMU’s most recent report once again recommended keeping the average daily population at the Victor Cullen Center as low as possible in order to ensure the facility is more manageable for the available staff.

“The population at Cullen must be kept as low as possible to provide an opportunity for new leadership to implement measures to work on staffing issues and promote overall staff development,” the report states.

In the first quarter of this year, the average daily population was just 28 youths, the report states. By comparison, the average population was 32 youths in the first quarter of 2016 and 35 in 2015.

While the Victor Cullen Center was designed to accommodate a maximum of 48 boys, only 30 boys were being held there as of Wednesday, Harrison said when reached for comment.

“So the number has really stayed very consistent for a facility that can hold 48 male youth,” Harrison said, dismissing concerns about staff levels. “As the department has said consistently, our staffing levels are in line with national levels and the U.S. Department of Justice with regards to [the Prison Rape Elimination Act].”

Staffing is a reoccurring concern expressed in the previous JJMU reports from the Victor Cullen Center. Representatives of a state employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, staged a protest outside the center in August 2016 to decry staffing shortages at the center that they said endangered both youth and staff.

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, disagreed with Harrison’s assessment of the facility’s staff when reached for comment. Moran ultimately blamed the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan for failing to prioritize the safety of state employees.

“It remains an issue, not just in DJS but in a number of departments. ... It’s simply not a priority of this administration to ensure the safety of workers in the state,” Moran said. “... They need to hire more people in order to make sure that the facilities are safe for the youth and safe for the employees.”

While training — especially in terms of conflict resolution and mediation with youth — is improving for staff at Victor Cullen, the majority of direct care staff members had less than two years of experience, according to the JJMU’s first quarter report.

“Experienced supervisors are not available to mentor and teach new staff due to illness and absenteeism at the middle management level,” the report states.

The report, compiled in May, also mentioned the facility’s continued use of an interim director as another source of concern, but Harrison said that issue had since been addressed. Richard Robinson, who had been the acting superintendent at the time of the JJMU’s report, was recently appointed to the position full time, Harrison said.

Harrison also pointed out that all staff at the facility were trained in DJS’ trauma-informed care approach to handling at-risk youth, even dietary and master control staff members who don’t have as much direct contact with the youth as other positions.

Follow Jeremy Arias on Twitter: @Jarias_Prime.

Jeremy Arias is the Frederick city and government reporter for The Frederick News-Post.

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