Balto. County treatment center alters method, improves outlook Facility will consider any substance abuser

June 14, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years of struggling with empty beds, Baltimore County's jail-treatment center for drunken drivers -- the only such operation in the state -- has transformed itself into a regional facility for substance abusers and is filled to capacity.

Begun in 1994 for county motorists with repeated alcohol-related offenses, the privately run, 100-bed center admits voluntary clients from throughout the area who have multiple drug and alcohol problems.

As a result, officials say, the center has a two-week waiting list and recently expanded into two seven-bed residential cottages near its large brick building on the Rosewood Center state hospital grounds in Owings Mills.

"It's become more of a correctional treatment facility," said Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county Office of Substance Abuse.

The center was proposed 10 years ago as a publicly financed operation, modeled after a program in Prince George's County, which has since closed. Baltimore County officials also saw it as a way to reduce crowding in conventional jails.

Instead of a publicly funded facility, however, the county later decided on a privately run, self-supporting program, in which those referred for treatment would pay their way.

Though it opened to great fanfare, the center had trouble filling its beds, in part because judges were reluctant to refer drunken-driving offenders to a privately run operation where they would have to pay, said Gimbel.

By broadening its scope to include clients with multiple substance-abuse problems -- and by accepting those from outside the county -- the operators expect to report their first profit, $8,000 for the first quarter of this year.

"It's started to turn now," said co-owner Charles Powell who, with partner Robert Pascal, has lost $900,000 in the center. "We'll consider anybody who's got a drug or alcohol problem as a candidate."

The facility has a mix of clients. About 75 percent are referred by the court as a condition of probation, and 25 percent sign in for treatment while awaiting a court hearing.

Residents live in a renovated hospital building during an initial 28-day treatment that costs $1,540 to $2,540 a month, depending on their income.

Many leave during the day for jobs and return each night. Security is tight, and urine and breath tests are administered daily, officials say.

The two cottages are used for longer-term residents, some of whom stay for up to six months while they work and save money to restart their lives.

Also available are a 20-day intensive outpatient program that costs $840, and a 48-week follow-up program that costs $25 a week.

Those who can't afford the costs are covered by federal grant money, which accounts for about half the center's $1.2 million annual budget.

A little more than 50 percent of those admitted last year came from Baltimore County, about a third came from Baltimore and the rest from other nearby jurisdictions.

About 20 women are in the program.

"I just think it's wonderful," said county Circuit Judge J. William Hinkel, who said he often refers people to the center. He said few who complete the program come before him for new probation violations.

Joe Snelling, 33, of Granite is among the patients who praise the center.

Snelling, a former cook, said he spent a year in the county Detention Center for shoplifting to support his $30- to $50-a-day heroin habit before entering the center's 28-day intensive residential program a few weeks ago.

Now, he's looking forward to working again.

"I feel like a brand new Joe," he said. "I feel good."

Mike Pantelis, 34, of Timonium, a former Woodlawn restaurant operator arrested three times for cocaine possession after 10 years of drug use, recently completed six months at the center.

"When I came in, I'd lost everything," he said.

Now working in a nearby restaurant, he has paid his $500-a-month tab at the center.

Nearby residents and politicians support the operation.

"In the beginning, we were all upset," said Mary Easto, who lives less than a mile from the center. "But after we visited the site and saw how they operated, we have no problems. We don't even know they're there."

County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents the area, said the operators "really run a tight ship. I'm just absolutely amazed and delighted with the support they get from the community."

Pub Date: 6/14/98

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