The 24 rooms at the Western Maryland Children's Center are private, but Spartan — a bed, sink, toilet and a clothes rack mounted on tan cinderblock walls, the view of the outside world from the quarters limited to a slit window just a few inches wide.
This is where detained male juveniles from Region 3, an area that includes Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties, await adjudication and disposition for juvenile offenses, mostly misdemeanor thefts, assaults and drug offenses, said Reginald Garnett, executive director for residential operations for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
While the center lacks cozy amenities, it provides something many detainees lack at home — structure — said Group Life Manager Scott Appel. Those awaiting court dates get three meals a day, schooling, physical exercise, life-skills training and attention to medical needs, he said.
The outdoor recreation area has a double fence, the inner one added in the past year and topped with razor wire, Appel said. There is a small gymnasium that also serves as a multipurpose room for events like a Christmas meal for the juveniles, their families and staff.
School, with a few breaks, runs year-round, Garnett said.
"A lot of the kids we come in contact with have not, historically, been good students," Garnett said.
A total of 334 juvenile petitions were filed against minors in Washington County in 2010, but most of the youngsters did not end up in a detention facility or at one of the five residential treatment centers in the region, Garnett said.
"Eight-five percent of the youths who come under our purview are handled within the community," said Jay Cleary, communications director for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. That can include community service, juvenile probation, electronic monitoring and treatment regimens that allow children to remain in their homes, he said.
The average stay in a center like the one on Roxbury Road south of Hagerstown is about 15 to 19 days, Cleary said.
The center in Washington County is for boys only, Garnett said. Girls from this region go to the Alfred D. Noyes Children's Center in Rockville, Md., a facility that also has a section for males, he said.
Before the center opened in 2003, youths were kept at the former Washington County Holdover Center on Jonathan Street, said Appel, who has worked for the Department of Juvenile Services for 31 years.
The old center offered few services, and children ages 9 to 18 were held there only until they could be taken to court, rarely more than 24 hours, he said.
At Western Maryland Children's Center, boys receive a "very detailed initial screening" with a mental health assessment and a physical exam, Garnett said. Information from the assessments can be used by juvenile court judges to determine the appropriate disposition for a child, either within the community or in a residential setting.
The secured living and class area has the ambiance of a middle school, complete with student art on the neutral-colored cinderblock walls. The classrooms would be recognizable to any students in or out of detention, and the small dining area is functional, with tables and stools secured to the floor.
The individual rooms are grouped around common areas. At night, staff members check the juveniles at regular intervals through windows in the doors to the rooms, Appel said. Those checks are logged electronically, he said.
The clothes racks in the rooms have an unusual feature — the pegs are designed to flip down if more than a few pounds of pressure are applied, preventing a despondent detainee from using it to hang himself.
Family members and attorneys have to be escorted by staff into the secured area for visits, Appel said.
For the vast majority of juveniles who find themselves in detention, it is their first and last experience, Cleary said.
However, some youths find themselves returning repeatedly for violations of juvenile probation or new offenses, Appel said. Some actually want to come back, having bonded with staff and finding something like a stable environment, he said.