State officials agreed yesterday to allow a private company to open a juvenile facility in Carroll County, a move that troubled advocates and some lawmakers who say the Department of Juvenile Services took a dangerous step backward.
Nevada-based Rite of Passage received a license from the department to open a 48-bed program for boys deemed offenders in juvenile court. The facility, called Silver Oak Academy, will be at the site of the former Bowling Brook Preparatory School, which was shuttered two years ago when a boy in custody died. The company has said it would like to expand with time, and the buildings on the sprawling Keymar campus can house as many as 173 youths.
"I think it's a mistake," said Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and juvenile justice reform advocate. "I think that we have now invited a for-profit corporation into a region where we don't need them, and they have designs on a big facility, which is a grave mistake."
James Bednark, the incoming program director for Silver Oaks, said his company plans to "operate a 48-bed facility and demonstrate that we can do that well." He added that Rite of Passage "has a history of operating larger facilities" but that it was too early to talk about expansion.
A year ago, Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore testified in favor of legislation to limit the state to 48-bed juvenile facilities. Zirkin has a proposal this year that would limit private companies in the same way.
"I believe generally the principle of small is better," DeVore said. "However, there are certain exceptions."
For at least eight months, Rite of Passage has been laying the groundwork to reopen the former Bowling Brook facility. Some angry youth advocates argued that the license approval appeared inevitable and that the process was unfair.
In June, DeVore asked the three-member Board of Public Works to allow Rite of Passage to take over a state-funded buildings improvement project awarded to Bowling Brook's previous operators.
DeVore said the project transfer did not mean that Rite of Passage would be granted a license and promised that he would involve lawmakers in the process. Zirkin said he heard little else from DeVore until it became clear the license would be approved.
DeVore said that granting the license reflected his priority to keep Maryland's young offenders close to their homes.
Right now, more than 100 kids are in programs outside the state.
"If the choice is between sending them to Minnesota or Carroll County," DeVore said, "I'm going to pick Carroll County."