The state Board of Public Works' vote Wednesday to allow the privately operated Silver Oak Academy juvenile treatment center in Carroll County to double in capacity is regrettable not only because it violates the state's own policy of limiting such facilities to no more than 48 beds but because it sets a troubling precedent for how the state will handle future shortages of treatment slots for juveniles. If the goal is to help troubled youngsters get their lives back on track, the state would have done far better if it had accelerated long-delayed plans to build two new, smaller facilities in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Instead, Maryland seems to have reversed course toward the kind of dangerously overcrowded, harder-to-manage youth facilities it has been trying to move away from in recent years.
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed said the state needed to expand Silver Oak's capacity from its current 48 beds to 96 because of the perennial backlog of young people languishing in detention centers awaiting assignment to a treatment facility; currently there are 40 such youths in the system. The two state-owned and -operated youth residential treatment facilities, the Victor Cullen Center in Western Maryland and the J. DeWeese Carter Center on the Eastern Shore, are already at or near capacity. But Silver Oak, which is operated by a Nevada-based private company that owns several large youth treatment facilities in the West, has long made it known that it wants to expand its operation in Maryland, and it occupies a site that could eventually accommodate as many as 150 treatment beds.
There's no question the shortage of youth treatment beds in state-owned facilities is a serious problem. Young people ordered to undergo treatment by the courts can wait in city and county lockups for months before treatment slots become available. During that time, they don't receive any of the educational and counseling services they require, and they are exposed to overcrowded, uncomfortable conditions and the risk of violence from others prisoners that may exacerbate their problems. Both state officials and advocates for troubled youths have long insisted that getting youngsters into treatment quickly and minimizing the time they spend in youth lockups offer them the best hope of turning their lives around.
But the state has also learned through painful experience that large facilities like the one contemplated at Silver Oak are seldom the best venues for treating troubled youths. Silver Oak sits on the site of the former Bowling Brook Preparatory School, a large, chronically overcrowded youth treatment facility operated by the state that was shut down in 2007 after a young resident died there. That's one of the reasons Maryland law now limits the size of state-owned juvenile treatment centers to no more than 48 beds, and why the state needs new facilities in the Baltimore-Washington region to treat youngsters closer to their homes where they can be near their families and benefit from their support. Approving a doubling in size at Silver Oak (which as a private agency is exempt for the 48-bed cap) puts Maryland on a slippery slope toward undoing much of the progress it has made so far in moving the state toward the smaller treatment facilities research has shown are most effective at helping troubled youths.
One can easily empathize with the bind in which Secretary Abed finds himself as the person responsible for the well-being of troubled youths — a dilemma that the state has endured for far too long. Until the state builds new, smaller facilities, young people ordered into treatment will continue to endure long waits before a slot becomes available unless more beds are opened at Silver Oak. Mr. Abed has to choose between keeping them in youth detention centers, which no one thinks is a good idea, or sending them to an expanded Silver Oak — a less-than-ideal solution that may nevertheless be preferable to keeping them where they can't get the services and support they need. That's the trade-off the secretary has chosen to make, and given the fact that it could be years before additional treatment centers are built, it is necessary as a stopgap measure. But it's bad as a long-term policy and Maryland needs to make sure it doesn't become that by default.