ANNAPOLIS – Bowling Brook Preparatory School opened its doors in Carroll County in 1957 as a small school for orphans.
But by the time 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons died there after being improperly restrained by staff in 2007, Bowling Brook had morphed into a large, privately run juvenile detention center housing more than 170 boys.
A law passed following Simmons’ death capped the number of beds allowed at state-run residential facilities at 48, but left privately run programs open to expansion.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, has introduced a bill that would extend the cap to private facilities, even as the new owners of what used to be Bowling Brook are considering expansion. Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, is sponsoring a House version of the bill.
Zirkin said this week that failing to cap private facilities ignores the policies put in place following the Bowling Brook tragedy. He said the loophole could also leave Maryland open to becoming a “dumping ground” for out-of-state juvenile offenders.
“We have a very troubled history in this state around juvenile justice, and a large part of it is these monstrous facilities,” Zirkin said. “They start off small. Then they grow larger and unwieldy, and problems begin.”
Bowling Brook was shuttered following Simmons’ death. But a corporation called Rite of Passage reopened the facility as Silver Oak Academy last year. The renovated 78-acre facility boasts on-site high-school courses and better vocational training than most state-run facilities.
It also has room for nearly 200 beds. And though the facility is currently licensed for 48 beds, Silver Oak Director James Bednark told the House Judiciary Committee Thursday that he aims to expand to house 96 committed boys.
“There are bad, six-bed programs and there are great 900-bed programs,” Bednark said.
Maryland began moving towards a “regionalized” treatment and detention model with the 2007 capping law, promoting small, community-located centers over mega-facilities like Silver Oak. Research shows that this approach — also called the “Missouri Model” — reduces violence as well as recidivism rates.
Of the committed youth who left state custody last fiscal year, 60 percent were re-arrested within a year, according to the state’s independent monitoring unit. Eighty-five percent of boys leaving the state-run Victor Cullen Center in Sabillasville were re-arrested, convicted or “graduated” into the adult system.
Last May, 14 boys escaped from Victor Cullen. Two days before, a staffer lost a finger in a door slammed by a child who staff said was unsuited to placement there. Victor Cullen is under the 48-bed cap.
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore said in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee that the department “supports the intent” of the proposed cap.
“Keeping facilities at a size that maximizes efficiency plus maintaining safety for both staff and the youth served is the best formula for success,” DeVore wrote. “In the committed placement facilities operated by DJS, we have found that 48 beds is the optimum number for the population served there.”
But DeVore went on to say capping private facilities could limit opportunities for placing juveniles, creating a backlog of children awaiting placement or causing more to be sent out of state for treatment.
About 100 Maryland children are currently in detention outside the state. But Marlana Valdez, director of the state’s independent juvenile justice monitoring unit, said that number continues to decline as a result of improvements by DJS under the regionalized model.
She said that children who are sent out of state have particular behavioral issues — such as sexual aggression or pyromania — that cannot be adequately addressed at any facility in the state. These children face long waits for placement for that reason.
But the independent monitor was blunt.
“As awkward as it is, this bill right now is about Silver Oak Academy and their desire to grow larger,” Valdez said. “And Silver Oak does not serve the kind of population that is sent out of state.”
Valdez noted that Rite of Passage operates large facilities in several states, including a 500-bed secure facility in Colorado and a 250-bed facility in Arizona.
Bednark urged lawmakers to “legislate measures that ensure performance, and don’t rely on a population count for good outcomes.”
“The issue is not about profit,” he said.”It’s about opportunities for kids.”
A nearly identical bill passed the Senate last year, but stalled in the House.
Zirkin said this was due in part to strong lobbying efforts on the part of Rite of Passage. The Baltimore Sun reported that the group spent more than $50,000 on lobbyists — including Josh White, a former campaign manager for Gov. Martin O’Malley.