Last Friday morning, District of Columbia officials assured civic leaders from the Laurel area that youths at Forest Haven, a district juvenile jail off Route 198 near Maryland City, pose no security threat.
Several hours later, a 17-year-old fled the facility, Anne Arundel County police said. The next day, a 19-year-old absconded. And on Sunday, another 17-year-old escaped, according to U.S. Park Police.
Ten youths have walked away or driven away from Forest Haven since Aug. 6, said Pat Belasco-Barr, the district's administrator of youth services.
The escapes have angered nearby residents who recalled problems with Cedar Knoll, another district youth detention center in Laurel closed last year after 177 youths escaped or failed to return from weekend passes between 1990 and 1992.
"This is deja vu. This is Cedar Knoll from beginning to end," said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association.
The community might be better off if the juveniles still were kept at Cedar Knoll because "at least there's a fence around there," he said.
"This is exactly the same type of pattern which outraged the people in the surrounding communities and led to the closure of Cedar Knoll," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a 5th District Democrat, wrote Monday in an angry letter to District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
"We are told repeatedly the residents of Forest Haven 'do not pose a threat to the community,' " Mr. Hoyer wrote. "However, one of the escapees, an 18-year-old adult, was detained for carrying a deadly weapon. This is a danger to the surrounding communities and has caused a great deal of alarm among local residents."
Mr. Hoyer wrote that if the problem is not addressed immediately, all juveniles at Forest Haven should be moved to other facilities, such as the adjacent Oak Hill Youth Detention Center, a maximum-security facility"which has shown an ability to detain those individuals assigned to it."
Moreover, the U.S. Park Police in Greenbelt, who are responsible for Forest Haven because it is federal property, complain they have not been kept informed about activities there.
"We don't know what's going on at Forest Haven," Lt. Patrick F. O'Brien, commander of the Greenbelt Park Police station, said Tuesday.
"We don't even know who to contact at Forest Haven."
It was "news" to him that district officials agreed last Friday to include Forest Haven in an inter-agency agreement on procedures for informing local communities of escapes from Oak Hill.
"It is somewhat disconcerting," he said. "We're the primary law enforcement agency, and nobody has thought to contact us."
Ms. Belasco-Barr argued yesterday that the comparison between Forest Haven and Cedar Knoll is not valid. Ten youths have walked away from Forest Haven in six weeks, she said, but "at Cedar Knoll, we would have this every weekend."
She said Mayor Kelly's aides are preparing a response to Mr. Hoyer's letter.
Ms. Belasco-Barr said she does not believe there is a communications problem between district officials and the Park Police. Mr. Hoyer's office called last Friday's meeting, she said, and district officials were not told who would be present until the night before.
Lieutenant O'Brien said he has no communication problem with Oak Hill officials, only those at Forest Haven.
But Ms. Belasco-Barr said the same person handles police communications for both Oak Hill and Forest Haven.
She said the district largely followed last week's agreement in notifying local police agencies of the Forest Haven incidents. Agencies alerted included the U.S. Park Police, the National Security Agency police, the provost marshal's office at Fort Meade, and police in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties.
Lieutenant O'Brien confirmed that the Park Police have been notified of recent escapes from Forest Haven. Sunday, they captured the missing youth and three accomplices on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway within 10 minutes of the escape.
However, he said security fencing should be installed at Forest Haven.
Ms. Belasco-Barr said Vincent Gray, the district's director of hu
man services, is reviewing potential security changes at Forest Haven, but she would not elaborate.
Until recently, civic leaders and emergency officials thought Forest Haven, a former mental institution closed in 1991, was vacant.
But for more than a year, the district has used it to house a pre-release program for 20 juvenile offenders, some of whom have been convicted of violent crimes.
About 20 girls charged with nonviolent offenses also are housed at Forest Haven.
In addition, D.C. is seeking permission to open an 18-bed assessment facility for young offenders there.