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Maryland Juvenile Justice Official Resigns Over Past Abuse Allegations

Just seven months after he was hired as director over Maryland’s juvenile detention facilities, Chris Perkins, 38, resigned his $76,000 a year position when a Montana judge unsealed a report that found Perkins had abused children at a Montana boot camp.

The 21-page report detailed treatment of juveniles while Perkins was director of the Swan Valley Youth Academy, which was operated by Colorado-based Cornerstone Programs Corp. from 2003 to 2006. In fairness, Perkins’ alleged treatment of children under his care was no different from the treatment inflicted on juvenile offenders in many other states’ boot camp programs.

According to the report, Swan Valley Staff used “intimidation,” “brute force” and “threats” to create an “environment of fear” and a “culture of terror.” The report detailed incidents of staff forcing youths to exercise naked for hours at a time, making them drink hot water, repeatedly slamming them against a wall, and placing them in isolation for extended periods of time.

Cornerstone’s chief executive, Joseph Newman, said he suspended Perkins in November 2005 after Montana’s Public Health and Human Services Department began investigating allegations of abuse at Swan Valley. State officials found 19 licensing violations and concluded that Perkins and his staff did not always report abuse complaints to proper authorities.

Perkins was fired and Swan Valley shut down when the investigative findings were released in February, 2006. Montana authorities failed to show up for an administrative hearing and no charges were filed. “The report’s damning; I don’t disagree,” said Perkins. “But if, at the end of the day, it was as bad as it was, why did the state of Montana not do anything? They knew that the report was undocumented and unprofessional.” Perkins has adamantly denied any wrongdoing.

Although an administrative hearing officer dismissed the case in December 2006, he found the allegations in the report had been “substantiated.” Montana, however, may have allowed the case to lapse for several reasons. First, there is an ingrained practice of slapping the wrists of errant and abusive officials while blaming the prisoners. Then there is the problem of cracking the institutional “code of silence” and obtaining a conviction, as evidenced by the recent acquittal of seven guards and a nurse in the brutal death of Martin Lee Anderson, 14, at a Florida boot camp. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.20].

Perhaps not surprisingly, Perkins’ situation was not unique. In February 2008, Maryland officials announced they would not fire Wallis Norman, superintendent of the state’s Charles H. Hickey School for juvenile offenders. Following an investigation it was learned that Norman had resigned under threat of dismissal from a youth detention facility in Georgia in 2005.

Incident reporting practices at that facility had been investigated by a federal monitor under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), and Norman was accused of ordering a guard to “falsify” a juvenile’s statement that another guard had physically abused him. Unlike Perkins, though, Norman had been open with Maryland officials about problems with his prior employment.

This raises the question of how Perkins obtained such a high-ranking position while having such a shady past. Plain old cronyism was likely at play. Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore had previously worked with Perkins at a juvenile program in Pennsylvania.
DeVore’s hiring of Perkins in May 2007 was heralded as a turning point for Maryland’s long-troubled juvenile justice system; while it was indeed a turning point, it proved to be in a downward direction.

Sources: Washington Post, Associated Press, Great Falls Tribune, Baltimore Sun

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