The boys of Victor Cullen watched as the men of the Baltimore Plumbers and Steamfitters union guided welding torches across metal, hot sparks raining on the floor like fireworks. It was the end of the union school tour, and the union leaders were ready to give their charges - who had been in trouble with the law and struggled in school - the hard sell on a career in construction.
Money? One said he had made $2.1 million in his 32-year career. Brotherhood? "No matter where you came from, we stick together," another told them.
"Think about it long and hard," said Al Clinedinst, director of the training school. "It's a hell of a lot better than what's out there on the streets. It's an honest living, and you never have to look over your shoulder."
This program, 10 weeks of pre-apprenticeship training in the building trades, was meant to give troubled youths at the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County a fresh start. But it also promised another start for the center itself - a place with its own troubled beginning.
When the state re-opened it in July 2007, Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore set the bar high for the 48-bed, medium-security center, the state's only secure long-term care facility for juvenile delinquents. New to Maryland then, DeVore called Victor Cullen "our flagship operation for Maryland" and said he would use it as a blueprint for four centers scheduled to open in the coming years.
But Victor Cullen's first few months were rocky. In December, its first director, Chris Perkins, resigned after news reports questioned his role in abuse at a military-style boot camp he had led in Montana.
Four boys have escaped, including two in June who beat up a residential adviser and locked him in the laundry room before scaling the razor-wire security fence and fleeing to nearby Pennsylvania - an incident the state independent juvenile justice monitor said was the result of "multiple security breakdowns." All four boys were recaptured, and Juvenile Services officials said they have changed security procedures, using a more powerful community notification siren and improving employee training.
Some juvenile advocates said they saw deeper problems with training and programming. In May, the juvenile justice monitor, part of the Maryland attorney general's office, and a watchdog group called Advocates for Children and Youth released reports critical of the center's first few months.
"Victor Cullen has encountered major start-up challenges that have affected its ability to provide a safe and secure environment," the monitor wrote. Youths are "receiving substantially less rehabilitative services" than expected, and boys are being released from the center without aftercare plans, the advocates wrote after an April visit to the site.
One boy who told the advocates he had no aftercare plan was released only to be shot during a drug buy, then arrested and charged as an adult.
Soon after those reports came out, DeVore launched the pre-apprenticeship program at Victor Cullen - something he said had been in the works for months with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. DeVore said that program and other changes over the summer, such as improved staff training and more-detailed transition plans for kids who leave, helped Victor Cullen turn a corner.
"We have worked extraordinarily hard," DeVore said. "To hire staff, make adjustments in construction, develop a program model and get all the major components in place, it's pretty ... amazing for that period of time."
The Victor Cullen Center is a campus of buildings spread across 268 acres near the Catoctin Mountains. It has been the site of a tuberculosis hospital, a residential treatment center for developmentally disabled adults and, for much of the 1990s, a privately run juvenile center. It closed in 2002.
Faced with a serious shortage of residential beds for juvenile delinquents, state officials decided to reopen Victor Cullen last spring, spending $13 million to renovate the facility, double what the state legislature allotted. Victor Cullen accepts offenders with multiple and often escalating crimes on their records, but not the most violent crimes - armed robbery, murder, shootings, sexual assault. Those youths are often sent out of state.
More than 14 months after it opened, 35 of the 48 beds are filled. John Dixon, deputy secretary of juvenile services, said the center hasn't reached capacity because the department wants it to grow slowly. A total of 32 youths have successfully completed their terms at Victor Cullen. Another 15, including the four who escaped, were transferred to other programs.
The Rev. James Kirk, who has served on several state juvenile councils, toured Victor Cullen in April and has kept up with its progress.
"The facility itself is wonderful," Kirk said. "The secretary has made it a signature program. I think the emphasis on job training is exactly where we need to be."
Seven of the pre-apprenticeship graduates are still completing terms at Victor Cullen. The other four have returned to their home communities, trying to find their footing by using what they learned.
Donald Cooper, 18, is studying for his GED and recently got into a cement and masonry apprenticeship program near his family's Washington home.
"If this didn't come into my life, I'd probably be doing something negative," Cooper said recently of the program. "Now I've got a chance."
Meanwhile, Victor Cullen, too, is trying to find its footing with the pre-apprenticeship program. A fall term was delayed to accommodate the schedules of the union members who serve as volunteer teachers at Victor Cullen. Officials hope to have another 10-week training session in January.