The state Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to allow a Carroll County treatment center for juveniles to double its size to 96 beds — twice the state cap of 48 — despite a policy of sending troubled teens to smaller facilities for treatment.
"It's not ideal," Gov. Martin O'Malley, a member of the board, said after voting for the expansion. "It's not ideal at all."
But O'Malley and Sam Abed, Maryland's secretary of juvenile services, said the state had no choice but to allow the privately run Silver Oak facility to expand because more than 40 youths are languishing in state detention centers instead of getting court-mandated treatment.
On average, those young offenders wait 54 days for space in a treatment facility. An additional 125 young people have been sent outside of Maryland for treatment because state facilities had no room or couldn't provide specialized help.
The board agreed to pay Silver Oak $9.3 million to finance care for the additional youths. The action is a departure from the state's long-term plan to house teens in smaller centers that are closer to communities and their families, a strategy that has become a nationwide trend in treating juvenile offenders.
The Silver Oak facility in Keymar is on the same site that housed the much larger Bowling Brook Preparatory School. Bowling Brook was closed in 2007 after a 17-year-old boy died while being restrained there, a case that helped usher in new state laws governing facilities for juvenile offenders. Silver Oak opened under different management in 2009.
By 2010, state legislators passed laws to limit the size of facilities, but on Wednesday, O'Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp blamed local officials for thwarting the state's plan to build smaller treatment centers.
"We need more help in siting these facilities," O'Malley said in an interview. "We've had the money there. We've done all sorts of exhaustive searches. And at the final turn at the bend, when it comes time to site the facility, often times local representatives rise up to fight."
Such was the case when the state tried to build a 48-bed facility in Waldorf. Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller and Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton lobbied last fall on behalf of upset citizens. The state abandoned plans for that facility this year.
Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Eric Solomon said the agency has had similar trouble looking for an acceptable spot in Baltimore for another 48-bed facility.
"People are understandably not happy about the thought of a juvenile facility in their backyards, but it has to be somewhere and it's our kids," Kopp said.
The board is made up of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer. O'Malley originally had planned to let Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown take his place at the meeting, and O'Malley's chief of staff pulled the Silver Oak vote from the agenda Tuesday evening.
But O'Malley changed his plans Wednesday morning so he could attend the meeting and vote on the measure, and the item was restored to the agenda, a spokesman said.
The short notice prevented state Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a longtime critic of large juvenile facilities, from dispatching his chief of staff to read a statement objecting the plan, which he called a "giant step backward" in public policy. Zirkin and others have criticized larger facilities as unsafe and less effective at treating young offenders.
"It's a shame," Zirkin said of the expansion, which officials said will make it less expensive for the private operators to run Silver Oak, which is large enough to house 150 people.
"Once those beds are there, they'll never get rid of them and they will be back for more," Zirkin said. "The move toward building smaller facilities that are regionalized, that vision just goes out the window."
Expanding Silver Oak will take some time. Abed said the department will not send more than one new juvenile there per week. The expanded program, he said, would be treated as two separate 48-bed facilities housed on one campus. The arrangement will help maintain the right "culture" at the facilities, he said.
Kopp expressed concern that the expansion, though aimed at getting more teens into treatment sooner, would take pressure off the state to find new spots to build treatment centers. But she voted for the expansion.
"You can't make the perfect the enemy of the good," she said.
Comptroller Peter Franchot, who opposed the expansion when it was first considered in January, was out of town in advance of his daughter's wedding and could not attend Wednesday, an aide said.
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