Silver Oak Academy, a reform school for juvenile delinquents, will open this month in rural Carroll County with nine boys, slowly expanding to four dozen - just a fraction of the size it could be.
The sprawling facility, with a 20,000-square-foot vocational training center and six dormitories, can accommodate at least triple that number, a legacy of the ambitious expansion plans of its previous owner, Bowling Brook Preparatory School, which was forced to close after a student died. And the company currently operating it, Rite of Passage, is known for super-sized juvenile justice programs in Western states that it clearly wants to replicate here.
Even before its opening, as soon as this week, the fight has begun over just what shape Silver Oak Academy will take, part of a broader discussion about Maryland's approach to rehabilitating juvenile offenders.
Lawmakers agreed last year that state-run juvenile facilities must be no larger than 48 beds and should be near the hometowns of the children they serve, with particular emphasis on Baltimore. Such a model, national experts have found, gives kids a better chance of avoiding new arrests and succeeding in school once they return home.
The state has designated $188 million to build new juvenile facilities in line with that approach, but construction is years away. Meanwhile, more than 200 juvenile offenders are awaiting treatment in lock-ups or have been sent to other states.
State juvenile justice leaders see programs like Silver Oak as a way to temporarily fill a void, and Gov. Martin O'Malley calls the facility simply a "bridge" to the ultimate goal of small, state-run juvenile facilities across the state.
"There really is a desire on the part of everybody for our regionalized system," said Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Donald DeVore. "It is going to take time to get there."
Child advocates don't buy it.
A step backward?
Rite of Passage has invested far too much money to be temporary, they say, and the opening of Silver Oak is a step backward for juvenile justice. It is about 10 miles from the 48-bed, state-run Victor Cullen Center, a higher-security youth facility, and both are more than an hour's drive from Baltimore.
"This doesn't contribute a damned thing to developing regionalization," said Jim McComb, a longtime child advocate and former director of the Maryland Association of Families and Youth.
The advocates also worry that, over time, the private provider will grow to resemble its troubled predecessor, Bowling Brook, where 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons died after being restrained by employees. The 50-year-old reformatory in rural Keymar had grown over the years to house about 175 boys. Advocates argued that rapid expansion doomed that school.
Bowling Brook's closing gave Rite of Passage its long-awaited entree to Maryland.
Founded 25 years ago by a former UCLA tennis player, Rite of Passage is best known for its largest reform schools, which include one with 500 beds in Colorado and another with a capacity of 250 in Arizona.
The company houses a handful of Maryland kids at its Arizona facility and had been tracking the state's juvenile justice issues for years. It concluded that the state needs many more beds than it has, said James Bednark, director of Rite of Passage's Maryland operation.
In January, the Nevada-based Rite of Passage purchased Bowling Brook's 78-acre property for $8 million, according to state property records. It also took on $2 million of the former owner's debts to the state and spent another $250,000 on renovations.
"You don't often find a facility like the one we're in," Bednark said.
The first new residents at Silver Oak will be Maryland boys now at the company's Arizona program, which Bednark said will smooth out the opening because they will already be familiar with Rite of Passage's policies.
All residents will be teen-agers found "responsible" - the juvenile equivalent of guilty - of offenses such as assault and drug crimes. The program won't accept the highest-level offenders, murderers and rapists, for example, but will take kids with low-level emotional and substance abuse problems.
They will take classes to work toward a high school diploma or GED and receive vocational training. There are no razor-wire fences, armed guards or alarms, meaning staff members provide the only security.
"Kids respond the way you and I would expect them to," said Kevin McLeod, Silver Oak's director of group living. "In detention, kids have to take care of themselves. Here, the adults serve as surrogate parents. Here, we can let young men be young men."
McLeod, a Park Heights native who has been involved with youth services for 25 years, most recently in Miami, is among the 27 employees Rite of Passage has hired so far. More will be added, Bednark said, as the population expands.
Even after all 48 youths have arrived, the 78-acre campus no doubt will feel empty.