About two dozen of Maryland's most violent juvenile sexual offenders would be housed at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Towson, under a proposal that officials of the psychiatric hospital released yesterday.
Sheppard Pratt, which is trying to adjust to a shrinking patient load brought by changes in health care, wants to house male offenders in an empty building on its bucolic 100-acre property ,, along Charles Street.
Hospital officials said security would be a priority, with fences, locked doors, motion detectors and video cameras. And the offenders -- who are sent by the courts to such centers -- would be kept apart from other patients.
L Still, some nearby residents reacted to the plan with alarm.
"I think we need to know an awful lot about how these people will have access to the entire facility there," said Don Gerding, a community activist who has lived in Rodgers Forge for more than 40 years. "It is a major, major situation. We need to be concerned where Sheppard is heading."
Others said they wanted more information before commenting.
"It gives me cause for concern," said Robert J. Baummer, president of the Southland Hills Improvement Association. "But I can't comment on it without seeing the details or getting input from the rest of the community."
The 105-year-old Sheppard Pratt has also been known over the years as Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. The facility, consistently named one of the nation's top psychiatric institutions by U.S. News & World Report's annual hospital report, was rocked almost two years ago by the slaying of a counselor in an unlocked, therapeutic group home.
Sharon Edwards, a 26-year-old mother, was stabbed to death Oct. 8, 1995, her first night working at a residential cottage on the grounds of the hospital. Benjamin Scott Garris, a 16-year-old living in the cottage, was convicted last July of first-degree murder.
"It was unfortunate and extraordinary. While terrifying to the community, it also was traumatic for employees here," Sheppard Pratt spokesman Mark R. Eber said, adding that the hospital has stepped up security.
In seeking the new treatment center, Sheppard Pratt officials said they are responding to a request from the state to house juvenile offenders in Maryland, not out of state.
As of last year -- the most recent figures available -- 372 juveniles from Maryland were placed in treatment programs outside the state, said Marsha Koger, a spokeswoman with the Department of Juvenile Justice. Of those, about 48 were considered sexual offenders.
Asked about the term "violent juvenile sexual offender," Eber said, "Violence refers to the act. It doesn't mean the kids are the worst of the worst."
But a planner for the Maryland Health Resources Planning Commission, which must approve bids for such projects, said there are various levels of sexual offenders. "Violent juvenile sex offenders are the most violent and predatory," said Paul Gentile, a mental health and addictions planner.
Sheppard Pratt is working with Miami-based Ramsay Health Care Inc., which specializes in treating juvenile sexual offenders, to develop programs for the proposed center.
Terry Laurita, a program director for a Ramsay-affiliated center at Chestnut Ridge Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., said about 70 percent of juvenile offenders respond to treatment. When offenders are returned to their home states, treatment also involves the family, she said.
Ramsay operates centers in 16 hospitals.
Currently, Sheppard Pratt has an eight-bed unit for juvenile sex offenders at its Jefferson School in Frederick.
Typically, the offenders housed at Sheppard Pratt's Towson campus would be between ages 12 and 18.
The hospital expects to have a design plan for the two 13-bed units on the top floor of the South Chapman Building by next week. It mailed dozens of letters to neighbors, explaining the project this week.
It expects to hire about 50 workers if the center is approved. The staff-to-resident ratio would be about 2-to-1.
While officials from nearby Towson State University and St. Joseph Medical Center withheld comment on the proposed center, an official of Greater Baltimore Medical Center said it has not opposed past Sheppard Pratt projects.
"We've generally been very supportive of everything they wanted to do," said Russell Frank, GBMC's vice president of business development. "I'd anticipate we'd be supportive of this."
Sheppard Pratt's request, if granted, would allow hospital officials to reuse space left empty as a result of changes in managed health care, as well as the use of newer medications.
Sheppard Pratt has adapted to such changes in other ways, too.
The hospital is reconfiguring buildings to fill vacant space and has privatized its swimming pool for community use.
It has leased 2 1/2 acres to nearby GBMC. And recently, the Forbush School for special education students opened new classrooms to accommodate a growing enrollment.
The nonprofit hospital's directors also hired a consultant to advise them on a comprehensive land-use plan, which is being developed.
Pub Date: 6/28/97