Juvenile facility transfer

State OKs Nevada firm's takeover of troubled Bowling Brook

June 26, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun Reporter

After an intense, hourlong debate - and over the objections of the state comptroller - the Maryland Board of Public Works approved the transfer yesterday of Bowling Brook Preparatory School, clearing the way for a Nevada company to reopen the Carroll County facility for juvenile delinquents.

Some youth advocates and state legislators criticized the Department of Juvenile Services for rushing forward with a plan that could result in a 173-bed, privately run facility, which they said contradicts the state's juvenile justice strategy of 48-bed regional treatment centers.

Bowling Brook, run for 50 years by a nonprofit company, was shut down after the Jan. 23, 2007, death of Isaiah Simmons, a 17-year-old East Baltimore boy. Witnesses said they saw workers restrain Isaiah for three hours.

Former counselors and staff at Bowling Brook complained after the death that the sharp rise in population - from 70 in 2001 to 170 in 2007 - contributed to an employee culture that came to include aggressive and dangerous disciplinary techniques.

Youth advocates urged the state to proceed slowly and cautiously if another large facility is to be opened.

"This train is running very, very fast," Cameron E. Miles, of Advocates for Children and Youth, told the Board of Public Works. He urged board members to defer the vote to research what the new company, Rite of Passage, intends to do with the Bowling Brook site.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat and juvenile justice reform advocate, also asked that the vote be deferred instead of "rammed through while there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered."

He said he was disappointed that the transfer was approved but added, "this is not over yet. The legislature will have its say about this. The budget committee will have its say."

"I want to make sure that no juvenile facilities, public or private, are even close to the size they are talking about here," Zirkin said. "There will be ramifications, serious ramifications, if this deal goes through."

At the meeting, Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore assured the board that the matter before them was simply a real-estate transaction, and that it did not mean that Rite of Passage would automatically be granted a license to operate a juvenile facility.

With yesterday's vote, a $2 million state capital improvement grant is transferred to Rite of Passage, allowing for a private sale of the property. That company is expected to complete the real estate deal today, paying about $8 million for the property.

Comptroller Peter Franchot was skeptical of DeVore's assertion that the state had not led Rite of Passage to believe it would be able to open a facility on the 16-acre site in rural Keymar.

"I'm just applying good old common sense," Franchot said, pointing out that Rite of Passage had already hired an executive director for Maryland - a man who has said he is in the process of purchasing a home near Bowling Brook.

"It looks as if we're basically handing this group the contract," Franchot said. He asked that the vote be delayed to allow the board to research Rite of Passage, saying the transfer marked a "point of no return."

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp also expressed reservations about the transfer. "It looks as if you're bringing a small, technical item before us," she said, "but it actually incorporates so very much."

DeVore promised to involve legislators and others in the licensing process if Rite of Passage is successful in its purchase today. He and Shelly Mintz, an assistant attorney general who represents Juvenile Services, said the licensing process could take six months. The company would need to present an operating plan consistent with the needs of Maryland's troubled teens, DeVore said, for his department to issue the license.

Kopp said she was "heartened by what I've heard the secretary say," and voted in favor of the transfer, as did Gov. Martin O'Malley, the third board member.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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