The state Department of Juvenile Services plans to replace its rundown detention center for girls with a new, 48-bed facility in Carroll County — a size that is raising questions among advocates for troubled youths.
Juvenile Services Secretary Sam J. Abed will brief the Carroll County commissioners Thursday on the proposal to build a state-of-the-art, $53 million facility for girls on the site of the old Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center in Marriottsville. A department treatment center there for boys was closed in 2008.
The new detention center would replace the 50-year-old Thomas J.S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel in Anne Arundel County in 2017. The new facility also would handle girls now being sent to the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville, said department spokesman Eric Solomon.
Advocates for juvenile offenders have long pushed to close the Waxter Center. The building "really needs a makeover," Solomon said. "It's reached the end of its life."
While advocates expressed satisfaction that the department is moving to replace the Waxter Center, some said a 48-bed facility might be larger and more expensive than the state needs.
"Before the department tells us they need a $53 million detention center for girls, they have an obligation to the girls and to us to show they've exhausted the community-based alternatives to detention for those girls," said Sonia Kumar, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Kumar said she would prefer to see the state invest in a shelter rather than "a jail for kids." Children in detention centers, she said, can expect to encounter strip searches, locked doors and requirements that they seek permission to go to the bathroom.
The proposed detention center would be built just across the Patapsco River from Howard County on a state-owned seven-acre parcel near parkland. "It's not going to be on top of neighbors," Solomon said. Girls in state detention facilities typically range in age from 14 to 17.
Nick Moroney, director of the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit in the Maryland attorney general's office, said advocates will want to make sure the new facility has individual rooms for each girl, mental health treatment facilities, an infirmary and a separate cafeteria and gymnasium to replace the "cafe-nasium" doing double duty at Waxter.
Solomon said the new facility would have all of those features. He said the department intends to use it for all girls sent by the courts to juvenile detention except for those from the Eastern Shore, where the agency has six beds for that purpose.
Like Waxter, the detention center is not intended as a place where girls remain for long. Solomon said the average stay is about 15 days before a girl is evaluated and placed in a treatment center or released into her community.
Solomon said the meeting with the Carroll commissioners in Westminster is the beginning of a process of seeking opinions from the community, including public hearings on the proposal.
"We want to be transparent in this whole matter," Solomon said.
Several local elected officials said they were keeping an open mind about the proposal, noting that Carroll has a history of hosting state institutions such as juvenile treatment centers and Springfield State Hospital.
"A lot of it depends on how it's done and making sure the concerns are met," said J. Douglas Howard, president of the all-Republican Carroll Board of Commissioners.
Del. Susan Krebs, who represents South Carroll in Annapolis, said there has never been resistance in Carroll to "well-run" juvenile facilities such as the Silver Oak Academy in Keymar.
"The community has embraced them," she said. But Krebs, who had not been fully briefed on the new project, expressed misgivings about cost. "That's a lot for 48 beds," she said.
Jason Tashea, juvenile justice policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said he hopes the plan doesn't divert the state from the goal of reducing youth incarceration. "Why are these girls going into these secure detention facilities in the first place?"
The Waxter Center has a capacity of 42 beds. A report this year by the monitor's office said the population at Waxter fluctuated from 19 to 36. Another 15 to 20 girls are being detained at Noyes, also considered an outmoded facility, while a Waxter unit is being renovated.
Moroney said the state needs to justify a 48-bed facility in view of the department's goal of reducing the time juveniles spend in detention. Whatever his misgivings about the size of the new center, he said the state cannot afford to delay in closing Waxter.
"We do think it's imperative to move forward with replacing Waxter as soon as possible with a small, purpose-built detention center for girls in Maryland," he said.