Wicomico County Sheriff R. Hunter Nelms said yesterday that he is permanently closing the military-style Lower Shore DRILL Academy where state juvenile services officials ordered the removal of 45 teenage offenders this week.
"The academy is closed for good - that's it as far as the Wicomico Sheriff's Office is concerned," Nelms said.
The program, which Nelms' office opened 11 months ago, mostly housed youths whose care was paid for by the state Department of Juvenile Services. Yesterday, Nelms criticized the department for moving too hastily to remove youngsters as authorities look into allegations of abuse, including complaints that underwear-clad residents were pelted with food and forced to wallow in vomit.
A state police spokesman said yesterday that the investigation is continuing, but would not say when it might be completed.
Juvenile services officials had asked a consultant to review the academy to see how the program could be modified. They said yesterday that they would like to salvage the program if possible and eventually return youths to the facility.
"It is not the department's intent to shut the program down at all," said LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the agency. "We would very much like to work with Sheriff Nelms on [making] improvements."
But Nelms said he isn't interested. "We are not going to deal with DJS," Nelms said. "This department has lost any trust we might have had. The staff has no confidence whatsoever, and neither do I."
Juvenile services officials asked state police to investigate the allegations about two weeks ago but did not order the removal of youngsters until Wednesday, after The Sun asked questions about the accusations. Yesterday afternoon, two days after the state ordered the removal, only seven of the youngsters had been released to their parents or transferred to other programs, Nelms said.
The DRILL Academy - which stands for Discipline, Respect, Integrity, Leadership and Learning - was dependent upon the $153-a-day stipend the state paid for each young offender, Nelms said.
Already facing a $500,000 deficit caused by construction delays and other problems at the academy, the Wicomico County Council must now decide the fate of the three-building facility near the county airport. "I think it's too early right now to speculate on what's going to happen to it," said Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman.
The program had strong support from many local officials, including Del. Norman H. Conway, who is head of the House Appropriations Committee. The Wicomico County Democrat said yesterday that he thinks state juvenile services officials dealt unfairly with Nelms.
Conway said that Juvenile Services Secretary Kenneth C. Montague Jr. should have waited for the results of the state police investigation and the consultant's evaluation before deciding to remove all youths from the academy.
"I think it was a premature decision, and I am totally disappointed in the way it has been handled," Conway said.
County State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark also said he was "extremely disappointed" that the academy is being closed.
But some advocates said that state juvenile services officials had no business assigning youths to a boot camp-style program, given Maryland's history with such programs. State-run boot camps in Western Maryland were shut down five years ago after an abuse scandal.
Research has shown that such programs are ineffective and prone to abuse, said Stacey Gurian-Sherman, a lawyer and juvenile justice advocate who has counseled families of youths at the DRILL program.
"I am delighted that they are shutting this down," she said. "It should never have been put on line. ... There is no reason to ever subject a child to violence, humiliation, intimidation and, ultimately, child abuse."
Gurian-Sherman said the $41,000 cost of keeping a child in the program for nine months could have been better spent. She said the money could have been used to hire social workers, therapists and educators to work with troubled youths in their homes or communities and to secure "appropriate placement" for those who need residential care.
"Law enforcement officers shouldn't be running child development programs," Gurian-Sherman said. "It's just too hard to separate the tactics they use on the streets to arrest criminals, and not use the same tactics and frame of reference on children who are troubled."