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Time for action at Victor Cullen

July 28, 2009

Will Rogers once famously compared Communism to Prohibition, saying that "it's a good idea, but it won't work." Based on recent history, such seems to be the case with the Victor Cullen Center in Sabillasville, which reopened in 2007 after spending five years in mothballs due to a litany of escapes and operational problems.

Once a tuberculosis sanitarium dating back to 1907, the rambling stone complex in rural Frederick County near the Pennsylvania border was fashioned into a reform school for boys in 1965 and today is the state's only treatment center for troubled youth.

When the center reopened, it was under a theoretically appealing but functionally problematic program that stressed mutual care and respect over punishment and intimidation. Treatment might be impossible when the treatee does not want to be treated. So, the program depends on staff gaining the trust of the youth and cultivating an attitude of acceptance to the need for change.

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Relatively speaking, this might indeed work better than traditional punishment, but events of the past two years would indicate it is not working very well. Three escapes in the past two years have rekindled fears of violence in the community, and caused the Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit to conclude that the boys may be too violent for the staff to handle.

During an escape in May, several workers were injured and some so feared for their lives that they locked themselves in their offices. Still, Department of Juvenile Services officials are taking the "all is well" approach, and saying that an incident here and there should not overshadow the center's good work.

As well-meaning as the center might be, however, there are fundamental issues at work. One hallmark of these troubled kids is that they react very poorly to stress and when one acts out, it can easily escalate into a mob of excitable boys.

And a facility with a reputation for violence is unlikely to attract résumés from talented individuals who might actually be able to help. Good employees will either leave or become demoralized and poorer treatment will lead to more violent outbreaks as the downward spiral continues.

DJS, in a statement, went so far as to call the incident "unfortunate," but what's truly unfortunate is that there are no good answers. The new and supposedly improved Victor Cullen was supposed to be a model for three new juvenile facilities in the state. But clearly the model needs work.

More supervision and more staff would appear to be an option, or even a necessity, but with the state awash in red ink and numerous state layoffs on the horizon, this solution appears unlikely.

Closure might be an option, but then where are these boys to go? Already, 200 youth are being held in-state or out-of-state awaiting placement in a facility such as Victor Cullen, which has 48 beds.

Were Victor Cullen in some state lawmaker's backyard, it wouldn't have just been closed down many moons ago -- it would have been imploded, bulldozed, burned to the ground and then closed down. But there it sits, atop the mountain, out of sight and out of mind of those in power.

Whatever the state decides, it should do so with urgency. So far, the escapees have seemed somewhat bewildered about what to do after they have gotten beyond Cullen's fences and have been easily recaptured. But there's no guarantee this always will be the case.

The legislature and state agencies need to step in immediately to fix these problems, and if they can't -- if they can't ensure that the staff and community will be safe -- the state should realize that the decision to shutter Victor Cullen in 2002 might have been the right decision.

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