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Getting what you pay for

February 6, 2004
(copyright The Baltimore Sun/Tribune Media)
 

Small wonder kids get hurt in the state's juvenile detention centers: Their watchers are underpaid, overworked and less experienced than they should be.

Maryland's nearly 1,000 youth supervisors and juvenile counselors are charged with supervising and guiding kids awaiting court hearings or placement in group homes or other long-term programs. They do everything from making sure wards are clean to writing behavior study reports on individual children. They also act as surrogate parents, maintaining order while reaching out to kids in desperate straits.

But Maryland doesn't respect the job they do enough to pay them reasonably for it, or to require that they have much experience in how to guide kids who likely have serious social and mental problems.

With starting salaries that are 8 percent to 34 percent lower than those of comparable jobs in nearby states, Maryland has set itself up as a finishing school for juvenile justice workers. Nearly 30 percent leave the lowest-level front-line jobs here every year, as The Sun's Jeff Barker reported this week. Many take their year's experience to facilities in Virginia or the District of Columbia - which pays entry-level youth care workers about $5,400 a year more than Maryland does.

The Department of Juvenile Services must hire and train 130 or so people every year, based on recent turnover numbers. It can't keep up, so staffers rack up the overtime, which is expensive for the department and unhealthy for the workers. Inadequate staffing and "untrained, overworked" employees were factors in a riot last March at the Cheltenham Youth Facility, according to state monitors, who found that the same situation at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School contributes to a "steady stream" of incidents involving assault or the use of force.

These kids deserve better. Continually replacing their replacement parents doesn't help juveniles counter the chaos common in their lives. And seeing that their care is entrusted to folks who may not have even a high school degree - and no career track - can't be too inspiring.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s budget for 2005 would boost the grade levels of youth supervisors, raising their salaries by about $1,500 a year to $25,286. That's a start, though still far behind D.C. and Virginia.

Paying them appropriately also would help attract and retain workers who have more substantial qualifications than a high school diploma or equivalent experience. Four weeks of on-the-job training doesn't fill in the gaps for employees who haven't completed basic coursework, not to mention the advanced psychology, sociology and management it takes to deal with two dozen or so unruly youngsters.

Maryland must make a serious, continuing commitment to attracting and retaining an able staff. It's a smart investment, not just in kids getting rehabilitation but in a work force worth hanging onto.

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