In a dimly lit office at a Crownsville school for troubled youths, five almost-lost souls sit quietly, discussing in turn their problems and the circumstances that landed them here.
There's Chad, the 16-year-old from Glen Burnie, who has a juvenile arrest record so extensive his friends joke there's not enough paper in a reporter's notebook to get it all down.
There's DeeDee, 18, from Annapolis, eight months pregnant and expelled from school for fighting. She's also spent time in a girl's home for theft and assault.
And there's Eric, 17, a former drug user from Eastport convicted of grand larceny and fraud; Dave, 14, a recovering alcoholic from Pasadena labeled "seriously emotionally disturbed" in sixth grade; and Michelle, 17, of Annapolis, who broke a bottle over a man's head for harassing her, landing her in juvenile court.
Their stories are diverse, their crimes assorted, their backgrounds varied. Yet they have one thing in common -- their futures looked grim, desperately grim, until they ended up at the county's Careers Center, located on the grounds of the Crownsville State Hospital.
Now, after a few months, and in some cases weeks, the teen-agers say they feel better about themselves, their school work has improved and they see some hope for the future.
If it wasn't for the Careers Center, said the youths -- some who have already served time in juvenile detention centers -- they probably would have ended up in trouble time and time again.
"I'd be a fugitive, in and out of jail," said Chad, who had racked up a juvenile record that includes assault and battery, destruction of property, auto theft and shop-lifting convictions.
Last week, the students learned that the program they credit with saving their lives is itself in jeopardy.
Two weeks ago, County Executive Robert R. Neall released next year's operating budget, which had eliminated the $330,660 needed to run the 15-year-old program. Center staff members said they had no inkling their program was in jeopardy until Neall released his budget. Unless the executive decides to reinstate funding by May 31, the center will cease to exist after July 1.
"What's going to happen to the rest of the juveniles?" asked Chad. "What about the kids who are 12 or 13 years old? What are they going to do with them? They'll end up sitting in jail. They ain't giving anybody else a chance."
Louise Hayman, spokeswoman for Neall, said money for the center was eliminated for numerous reasons, but mostly because the administration believes the state, not the county, should provide this type of service. Most of the participants are referred by the juvenile justice system, she said, making the program an extension of Juvenile Services, a state responsibility.
"We're the only county in the state that supports a program like this," she said. "And this is a time in which we have to go back to DTC basic services. This looks like an optional service."
After an evaluation of the program last spring, the administration noted a number of problems as well, Hayman said, including attendance problems and inadequate record-keeping.
Neall also questioned the center's effectiveness, Hayman said, adding that Director George Surgeon does not track the progress of former participants or document their recidivism rates.
"We thought it was a fairly insignificant program. And we're not sure the quality is as good as some would think," she said.
But during budget hearings last week at Old Mill High School and the Arundel Center in Annapolis, parents, former students, juvenile judges and others protested the elimination of the center. Since then, supporters have written letters and called County Council members asking that the center be saved.
"This is getting just ridiculous. It's feeble," said Robert A. Pascal, the governor's appointments secretary and a former county executive. Pascal helped establish the program in 1977 and believes it is one of the best in the state.
"It sounds like an 11th-hour smoke screen to me," he said, referring to Neall's reasons for cutting the program. "I think the administration in general has done a good job at cutting a lot of fat out of government, but on this one, I think it's ill-advised."
Erica Wolfe, a master of chancery for the Circuit Court who hears juvenile cases, said closing the program would be a serious loss for the county.
"Maybe it should be the state's responsibility, but the state isn't filling that responsibility," she said. "This isn't anyone else's problem, it's our problem. We can't just shift the responsibility elsewhere.
"If it's cut, we face the prospect these kids will end up in jail or on public assistance because we didn't act to stop the problem."
Although she doesn't have "statistical evidence" to show the center is effective, she said, she has "all the anecdotal evidence" she needs. "I see these kids again. I've been to their graduations. If they're getting into trouble, I'd know it."
"These are candidates for adult incarceration," said Pascal. "It costs $40,000 to $70,000 to build a jail cell and $23,000 to keep someone there. There's no question we have to support programs like this."
The center's goal is to prepare students, most of whom have been expelled from school, to take their GED test and then to help them find jobs, said Surgeon. The center serves about 100 juveniles a year at a cost of about $3,300 each, he said.
Five years ago, the last time the center attempted to track former students, about 20 percent had gotten into trouble with the police again, Surgeon said, although he was unable to find that report.
A staff of seven teaches the academic courses, provides limited vocational training, counsels students and their families, and runs recreational activities and field trips.
"We're exhausted at the end of the day," said English teacher Steve Zumbrun, an eight-year veteran. "Sometimes we even have to drive the vans, take the kids home, at the end of the day."
Teachers said they will work with the administration to correct any perceived weaknesses.
"Don't just shut us down," said Zumbrun, adding that communication between the Neall administration and the school has been almost non-existent.
Indeed, Hayman said she knew little about the center. Neither she nor Neall has visited the program.
The teaching staff took issue with their criticism of attendance rates, saying students, on average, have no more than one unexcused absence a month. The average stay at the school, which is a day program only, is five to six months, they said.
The staff admitted that record-keeping and tracking of former students could be better, but attributed the lack of good records mostly to the small size of the staff.
Pascal said he was tired of hearing about the need for paperwork anyhow.
"I have this quarrel with bureaucrats about record-keeping all the time. They are too concerned with record-keeping," he said.
"No amount of money in the world could get these kids to come out [to the hearings] and say these things about the program if they weren't true. If I'm going to listen to a bureaucrat or these kids, I'm going to take the kids every time.
"They say there's no proof this is any good? My answer to that is pick up the telephone and call these kids and ask them. There's your proof."
Hayman said Neall will meet with a group of judges and others tomorrow to explain his reasons for cutting the program and listen to their concerns. She felt it unlikely the executive would change his mind about the program. But, she added, he could have a change of heart, based on what the judges have to say and whether the County Council lobbies for the program.