For the past 15 years, juvenile offenders in Baltimore County have seen firsthand the devastation caused by alcohol- and drug-related accidents by touring Maryland Shock Trauma Center at the end of a five-week class.
Those involved in the tours said they have helped wayward teens get back on track.
But now, the Baltimore County Health Department is eliminating the tours, for reasons that are not quite clear.
Ellen R. Clayton, the county's deputy health officer, said the program was "not necessarily proving effective." And, she said, "Scare tactics really is not listed as a best practice."
But in the letter she wrote May 29 to inform Shock Trauma that its services would no longer be needed, Clayton gave other reasons. She wrote that the county would receive less money for substance abuse prevention programs in the fiscal year that began Tuesday, and that the tours would have to be eliminated anyway because of "confidentiality regulations."
However, the state has not determined whether it will cut funding for the county's Bureau of Substance Abuse this year; the state gives money for prevention programs to the bureau, which distributes funds.
And experts in the federal government's new medical privacy law said the Shock Trauma tours could continue because patients always are asked to give permission before they are identified, satisfying confidentiality rules.
When asked about the discrepancy, Clayton reiterated that the county is discontinuing the tours because "we want to institute programs that are considered to be best practices."
The Shock Trauma tours, led by nurses Beverly Dearing-Stuck and Debbie Yohn, have been featured on Good Morning America and received national acclaim. An annual $20,000 grant from the county, expanded to $41,000 last year, covered tours for students completing substance-abuse prevention classes in Baltimore and several surrounding counties. The nurses also gave presentations in the community, including at high schools.
Yohn did not return phone calls, and Dearing-Stuck said she could not comment.
John Spearman, vice president of Shock Trauma, gave this statement on the center's behalf: "All the feedback we get indicates that this program has been very effective. We've worked with the county for approximately 15 years, and we really appreciated the opportunity to work with them. We're sorry we're not going to be able to continue this program with them. We think it's a loss."
Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's Bureau of Substance Abuse for nearly 23 years until he was fired in December, praised the program.
"This program was one of the most effective programs we ever ran in Baltimore County," said Gimbel, now director of the Office of Substance Abuse Education for Sheppard Pratt Health System. "You couldn't ask for a better research-based prevention and intervention program anywhere."
For the first decade of the program, Gimbel said, he followed the first-time juvenile offenders from Baltimore County who participated for two years afterward; 92 percent did not get in trouble with the law again during that time, he said.
"It's a tremendous loss," said Bill Kelly, a prevention specialist with Harford County's Office of Drug Control Policy, who has the nurses visit teens working with him. "They know how to relate to this type of kid extremely well."
Brian Willem, a funeral director and certified grief counselor who has arranged and attended tours for students at Perry Hall High in Baltimore County, said teens' reactions to the tours are emotional.
"The reality makes them understand what destructive decisions can do for them," he said.
During the tours, teens have seen helicopters land with patients who have just been injured, said Willem, and they have listened to patients and their families tell their stories. On one tour featured on Good Morning America, a girl with her mouth wired shut struggled to get her anti-drunken driving message across.
Jackie Foreman, who taught the class leading up to the tour for Baltimore County teens until 2000 and supervised the program until 2001, said the Shock Trauma tour alone probably wouldn't have a long-term effect. "But when you combine it with the information about drugs and alcohol, to actually see it just sends a whole message home," she said. "It was like the icing on the cake."
Foreman said she watched teens who thought they were invincible cry and faint.
"I've had several phone calls from parents who have said that program was a godsend," Foreman said. "One woman said, 'My child has been returned to me.'"