03/16/2006

Man steals van, crashes through fence at Md. young facility

GREG GARLAND, SUN REPORTER

Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company 

A male juvenile offender being held at the Cheltenham Youth Facility stole a volunteer's van and crashed through a fence to escape from the state-run detention center in Prince George's County, authorities said yesterday.

The youth, 18, remained on the run last night, and the van he stole had not been recovered, according to state police.

The escape occurred about 10 a.m. yesterday after the youth left a classroom where a "grandparent volunteer" was working, said Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Services. The youth talked his way past two staff members, got to the parked van and drove across the campus, crashing through a security fence, Hopkins said.

Officials said they were still trying to determine how the teen got the van's keys, which might have been in the volunteer's purse or coat.

"He was confronted by a staff member as he was leaving the classroom," Hopkins said. "He apparently used some ruse to get by that staff member. In the hallway, he was confronted by another staff member and also was able to talk his way past that person."

The teen has a record of car theft and other property offenses, Hopkins said. He had been held at Cheltenham since Feb. 17 waiting for a court hearing on car theft and other charges, according to his lawyer. The state had been expected to seek to move his case to the adult court system.

The woman who owns the van volunteers at the school and works with students in the classrooms on a regular basis, Hopkins said. She walks with a cane and parks her vehicle in a handicapped spot right outside of the building.

Hopkins said there have been four escape attempts from Cheltenham since July 1 - mostly youths who break away from groups and try to run off but are quickly apprehended. The last successful escape there was in October 2004, he said.

Yesterday's incident comes at a time when Maryland's juvenile jails are becoming crowded with youths waiting for the state to find them beds in residential treatment programs. The jails are intended for short-term stays by youths waiting to go to court.

There were 103 youths housed yesterday at Cheltenham, which is rated for a capacity of 86.

Independent monitors have noted inadequate staffing and high staff turnover at some facilities, including Cheltenham, as problems that contribute to an unsafe environment.

Hopkins said Cheltenham was appropriately staffed yesterday with about one direct care worker per seven youths. He said that the teen's escape had nothing to do with staffing levels.

Youths at Cheltenham will be largely confined to their cottages until the fence can be repaired and will take classes and receive other services there, the spokesman said.

greg.garland@baltsun.com 

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