Problems At Victor Cullen

Our View: Why Replicate A Treatment Model For Troubled Youth That Doesn't Work?

December 07, 2009

The Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County was supposed to be Maryland's answer to big, noisy and unsafe juvenile treatment facilities. It is the state's only secure residential treatment facility for youthful offenders, and when it opened two years ago, its program was touted as a model for rehabilitating troubled youths who can't be served in their communities. But a recent report by a state juvenile justice watchdog group suggests that it hasn't lived up to expectations.

Last week, the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit cited "alarming" rates of recidivism among youths at Cullen. It reported that of 20 youths who successfully completed the program in 2008, only three had not been arrested again within a year of their release, and 60 percent of those discharged this year have already been rearrested. The report also found that most of those arrested again ended up being charged with more serious crimes in adult criminal court.

A Department of Juvenile Services spokeswoman dismissed the group's findings by questioning the accuracy of the statistics. She suggested that only 73 percent of the youths who passed through the program in 2008 were rearrested and added that recidivism rates at Cullen were comparable to those of neighboring states. She also said the numbers would improve as Cullen staffers gained more experience on the job.

Such quibbles, however, aren't exactly a ringing endorsement of what was supposed to be Maryland's showcase juvenile detention facility.

Whether recidivism at Cullen is 3 out of 4 or 9 out of 10, it's way too high to claim success for the program. That, and this summer's violent incident in which a group of youngsters managed to escape the supposedly secure facility after injuring several staff members, ought to have officials seriously reconsidering whether Cullen is the right blueprint for a proposed network of similar facilities around the state.

The department is currently seeking authorization to build two more juvenile treatment centers based on the Cullen model in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Such facilities are clearly needed to deal with an epidemic of violent youth crime that current programs have failed to deter, as evidenced by the case of 17-year-old Lamont Davis, who was arrested this summer and charged as an adult in the shooting of a 5-year-old girl. He had been under DJS supervision for a year when the alleged crime occurred, but the department said the most it could do was strap a GPS monitoring device on his ankle.

Maryland should be a leader in developing effective strategies to address youth crime, with new facilities to match, and there's no shortage of successful examples to draw on from states such as Pennsylvania and Missouri. But lawmakers need to be wary of replicating the Cullen blueprint around the state until that program shows better results than it has up to now.

Readers respond

Good blueprints for residential juvenile services exist, and unfortunately, the Victor Cullen Center is not one. It is essential not only for the life successes of the youth leaving Victor Cullen but also for the public safety of all that Maryland not replicate a failed approach.

States that exemplify successful residential treatment demonstrate that certain components must be in place. Treatment should occur close to home. Families must be involved in the treatment process. Staff must be properly trained to work with youth. Programming within the facility must meet the youth's treatment needs. Most importantly, it is necessary to maintain and strengthen their connections to the communities they will return to upon release. This means facility staff, community case managers, families and youth must work together to develop comprehensive after-care plans that provide supports necessary to facilitate successful transition back into the community. These plans should address the youth's mental health, educational, vocational, employment, physical health, substance abuse and social needs.

Maryland needs a very good explanation for why it is OK to continue to pour millions of dollars into a program that does not work and to seek millions more to replicate a broken model.

Angela Conyers Johnese, Baltimore

The writer is juvenile justice director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

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