A plan by the Department of Juvenile Services to double capacity at a privately run residential facility for young offenders was put off Wednesday after state officials expressed concern about the system "backsliding" toward larger, harder-to-manage facilities.
Sam Abed, Maryland secretary of juvenile services, appeared before the Board of Public Works to request approval for an $11.7 million contract to grow the Silver Oak Academy in Carroll County beyond the state cap of 48 beds to 96. The move would help reduce a backlog of juveniles who get stuck at detention centers awaiting beds to open up at a treatment facility, he said.
"From the perspective of youth or a parent of a youth, it's very, very difficult to comprehend why the state would allow them to sit in a detention bed when there's an option available," Abed told the state spending board.
The Board of Public Works decided to take up the issue again in three weeks, asking the juvenile services agency to show that it had support from the legislature. Though described as a short-term fix, the proposed move led to concerns that it would reopen the door for larger youth detention facilities in Maryland.
Many youth experts say juveniles tend to do better in smaller facilities that are closer to the communities where they live, and the state has historically struggled to reconcile the size of facilities with the needs of the state's youth offender population.
"The cornerstone of reform has been to try to limit the size of these facilities," said state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who spoke out at the hearing against the expansion. "Over the years, these private facilities start off small, do a good job, and then end up having hundreds of kids. We're about to jump down this track again."
Silver Oak is run at the Keymar site of the former Bowling Brook Academy, which was shut down after a young resident died there. With a capacity for 150 youths, it reopened under control of the Nevada-based Rite of Passage Inc. in 2009 and has made clear its desire to expand. The company could not be reached for comment.
The possibility of an expansion first surfaced in May, when Abed told The Baltimore Sun he needed to find ways to reduce the number of youths awaiting placement. A data snapshot from Aug. 15 showed there were 155 youths being held in short-term detention centers in Maryland awaiting long-term placement. Their average length of stay in detention is 49 days, which officials say is far too long.
Since then, Abed said, he has been lobbying state legislators and youth advocates on the benefits of expansion.
Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe provided juvenile services officials with a letter of support for the move: "The department's data clearly indicates that … a large number of the youth pending placement require a placement in a facility that offers the security and treatment that is offered by" Silver Oak.
DeWolfe noted that those awaiting placement in detention do not receive treatment services based on their needs, but also said that as part of the expansion, Silver Oak would widen its admission criteria to include youth who had "previously been rejected or difficult to place in-state."
Angela Johnese, of Advocates for Children and Youth, said she could stomach the expansion if it were temporary. "But to think this would be a permanent fixture in Maryland is very problematic," she said in an interview.
In addressing the spending board, Abed noted that the attorney general's office's juvenile justice monitoring unit has been providing "glowing reports about the services Silver Oak Academy has been providing for youth."
The monitor, Nick Moroney, has generally written positively about Silver Oak. Still, he said in a Nov. 7 letter that he would not support an expansion to 96 beds there but instead would "consider — with reservations — supporting a gradual expansion to allow for a grand total of up to 72 youth."
Moroney encouraged the department "to pursue more localized and specialized treatment for youth in need."
The Silver Oak campus has a 20,000-square-foot vocational training center and six dormitories. Rite of Passage, which is known for large juvenile justice programs in Western states, purchased the 78-acre property for $8 million in addition to taking on $2 million of the former owner's debts and spending $200,000 on renovations.
It offers vocational training such as cooking, barbering, computers, construction trades and metal fabrication, and places an emphasis on athletics.
Abed said that while a larger facilities master plan remains in the works, "I know the realities of capital projects and construction. I cannot forsake the kids we have now in favor of a vision of a perfect system."
Officials appeared poised to vote on the expansion, with Treasurer Peter Franchot saying he would cast a vote against it.
But the board decided instead to push back the decision. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, sitting in for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the agency's move "highlights the real potential backslide that could occur in Maryland" if the longer-term capital plan can't be accomplished.