The state Department of Juvenile Services is moving to reopen Bowling Brook Preparatory School under new private management, potentially bringing back a Carroll County residence for troubled teenage boys that was closed last year when a youth died while being restrained by staff members.
State juvenile service officials are expected today to ask the Board of Public Works in Annapolis to transfer the 16-acre property, which can house up to 173 boys, to a for-profit Nevada company called Rite of Passage.
Though state officials insist that they have not made a final decision on Bowling Brook, the mere possibility of its being reopened is infuriating youth advocates, who say the size of the institution is at odds with the state's new strategy of 48-bed, regional treatment facilities. Many said they were surprised to learn of the state's plans only days ago when the transfer request appeared on the Board of Public Works agenda.
"This would be a ridiculous mistake," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and juvenile reform advocate. "It flies in face of everything the legislature and the executives have been trying to do."
Angela Conyers Johnese, juvenile justice director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said the proposed property transfer seems to "have come out of nowhere."
"We are really concerned that no one has tried to talk to us about this," she said. "We have a lot of questions. This seems to be developing without a lot of us."
It is not clear whether the board - made up of the governor, the state comptroller and the treasurer - will take action on the request today. A spokesman for Comptroller Peter Franchot said last night that advocates have contacted board members asking that the vote be delayed.
If the board approves the transfer, Rite of Passage expects to purchase the Bowling Brook property, valued at $15 million, from Walden, the company that owns it, within a week. The sale hinges on Board of Public Works approval because Walden holds a $2 million capital improvement grant that Rite of Passage would assume.
In an e-mailed statement, Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore said the Public Works action "is only about the transfer of debt from one business to another, no other decisions are being made at this time."
After the sale, Rite of Passage officials said they would work quickly to obtain a license to operate in Maryland. The 20-year-old company holds licenses in several other states, mostly in the West.
James Bednark, the company's executive director for Maryland, said Rite of Passage has been pursuing the purchase of the juvenile facility for about six months. He said that he is in the process of buying a home near Bowling Brook.
Bednark said he wants to adhere to the "Maryland model" by starting with 48 beds and then "proceed as things warrant."
Bowling Brook "was built as a larger campus, and there are opportunities that come from having larger numbers," Bednark said.
DeVore's chief of staff, Beth Blauer, said the secretary believes that Rite of Passage is a "credible program."
Asked whether the size of Bowling Brook would conflict with DeVore's goal of having smaller facilities, Blauer replied, "The goal is to treat Maryland kids in Maryland. Anything we can do to bring kids closer to home, we're going to do it. That's our bottom line."
In his e-mail, DeVore said that "any decisions about services to DJS youth will be consistent" with the agency's goals - treatment in small, community-based centers within Maryland.
More than 100 of Maryland's juvenile delinquents are being treated outside Maryland, including three in a Rite of Passage program in Nevada. The Department of Juvenile Services' capital improvement plan includes four 48-bed facilities that would be built over 12 years.
Blauer said the Rite of Passage deal would respond to an "instant need" for more bed space in Maryland.
Zirkin said he learned about Rite of Passage's interest in the property about three weeks ago when a lobbyist for the company called to ask whether he would support its bid to use the Bowling Brook site.
"I told them I would be 100 percent against it," the senator said.
Other advocates said that reopening Bowling Brook, even under new management, would reopen old wounds.
The 50-year-old Bowling Brook facility - which was embraced by many of the small towns around it - closed in March 2007. DeVore, who had just become secretary, and other officials pushed Bowling Brook to surrender its license after a death at the facility.
Isaiah Simmons, 17, of East Baltimore, died Jan 23, 2007, after an encounter with staff members. Witnesses have said that Simmons was pinned to the ground, face down, for about three hours before passing out and that he had told staff members that he could not breathe. Workers waited 41 minutes to call 911.
None of the workers was convicted of a crime, but Simmons' family has filed a civil lawsuit, and the Department of Justice is reviewing a civil rights claim.
Cameron E. Miles, organizing director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said, "It's too soon after Isaiah's death for us to be going back there."
Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale, a Carroll County Republican, said she sees another injustice in the possible reopening of the site.
"It's a real shame this is happening," she said. "If we had known this would happen, why didn't we just keep Bowling Brook open under the people who worked there for 50 years?"
She said she was crushed when Bowling Brook closed because she had come to respect what the facility did for children, aside from what she called "one single tragedy."
Stocksdale said DeVore hinted during a recent ribbon-cutting for a new youth services bureau in Carroll County that the Bowling Brook site might be used again.
"He said to me, 'I think in a couple of weeks I'll have some good news for you,'" she said. "He was wrong. This is not good news."