- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

ANNAPOLIS | Maryland should move more toward developing small, 12-bed facilities better able to help delinquent youths with mental illness, rather than incarcerating them in larger, 48-bed institutions, a juvenile justice watchdog concluded in a report Friday.

The state’s Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit contends “it is hard to understand why” the state has moved ahead with two larger facilities in recent years, when the Maryland model for juvenile services “purports to develop small, home-like facilities.”

“We can’t afford not to treat these children with a treatment approach that works, because the cycling in and out with no positive outcome is just money wasted,” said Marlana Valdez, Maryland’s independent juvenile justice monitor.

The monitor’s report includes three profiles of youths with mental health and substance abuse problems and long-term involvement in the state’s juvenile justice system.

“In the current environment, the outlook for these children is poor,” the report said. “Many will graduate to the adult criminal system. Many will continue to suffer from mental illness. And few will complete their educations and go on to lead productive lives.”

The Department of Juvenile Services, for its part, included several success cases in a response to the report.

“DJS employs and/or contracts for a range of mental health services for youth in our facilities to provide the best care possible in a detention center,” the department said.

In the past 2 1/2 years, only two facilities have been opened by the Department of Juvenile Services.

One is the Victor Cullen Center, a 48-bed institution in a rural setting in western Maryland. The center reopened in 2007, after having been closed for five years. A violent May breakout there led to the escape of 14 juvenile offenders and injuries to staff.

The other is the recently opened Silver Oak Academy in Carroll County on the former grounds of Bowling Brook Preparatory Academy, which was closed two years ago when a youth died after staff restrained him. The state granted a license to for-profit Rite of Passage for a 48-bed facility. While the license is for 48 beds, the grounds have the capacity for 175, and the monitor pointed out in its report that the company has said it plans to grow.

In its response to the monitor’s report, the department said both programs promote family involvement in treatment.

“It is extraordinary that in just 2 1/2 years, two facilities within the state have not only opened but are serving youth who would otherwise have been placed out of state,” the department said.

At a time of serious financial strain, economics also have played a role in the state’s policy. The department noted that both facilities already had buildings and grounds that could be quickly renovated.

“Use of the existing facilities, though not without renovation cost, was more budget-conscious than designing and building a new campus from the ground up,” the department said.

Still, the facilities in Carroll and Frederick counties are roughly 10 miles apart and far from the Eastern Shore and southern Maryland, creating distance between youths from those parts of the state and their parents.

Research has clearly shown that treating youths near their homes where they can have closer contact with their families helps reduce recidivism, said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youths.

“It really saves you money to treat kids closer to their community,” Mr. Joseph said.

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