CUMBERLAND — They look like camps — these collections of wooden buildings and modular structures scattered across the Western Maryland mountains.
But they’re centers for delinquent youths 14-to-18 years old — about 300 a year — who have been sent there by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. Some advocates say they are the state’s best model for how teenagers should be housed and rehabilitated.
There are basketball courts, baseball fields, and climbing walls. There are no fences or barbed wire.
“It looks like a camp,” said Jay Cleary, director of communications at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. The setting is “less confrontational” than other detention centers.
A large proportion of the youths are from Baltimore, which is a three-hour drive from Western Maryland. Others travel from as far as Southern Maryland, a drive that might take up to four hours, making family visits difficult.
At the camps, the teenagers participate in group therapy and wilderness camping meant to teach them how to cope with problems. “The goal is to equip the youth with the skills they need to re-enter their community and make better decision about their lives,” Cleary said.
State Sen. Robert Zirkin, long an advocate for reforming the juvenile services system, calls the program a “model.” He says the size of the centers, with about 48 beds each, is the key to their success. In smaller programs, youths get more attention.
Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a former Department of Juvenile Services secretary, agrees that the smaller facilities, such as those in Western Maryland, have the best chance of helping delinquent teenagers.
But 53 percent of youth are rearrested after a year of release from the youth camps, and 74 percent are re-arrested after three years out, according to a 2010 Department of Juvenile Services StateStat report.
These rates are almost as high as the recidivism rates for the entire juvenile services program, which includes much bigger centers.
Nancy Seifert, an intake supervisor for the camps, says that some teenagers already have a history in the delinquency system that is hard to overcome. “We don’t get the kids early enough,” she said.
Most of the youth have already committed other juvenile offenses and spent time in other detention centers before coming to Western Maryland, according to Seifert.
The teenagers who leave these camps usually return to the same neighborhoods where they got into trouble. Montague believes it’s the problems back home that are to blame for the high recidivism rates.
“If we send them off (after their release) to a nice place, a nice family, a place where they could live a middle-class life, they would be all right. But that’s not what they’re going back to,” Montague said.
According to Montague, a youth may come back to Baltimore and try to start a new life, but his friends will seek him out, putting him at risk of getting back into trouble.
The staff members who run the camps believe the programs help. These centers in the woods are far from the youth’s temptations or frustrations at home. They say the teenagers are learning teamwork, responsibility, and reliability through camping, substance abuse treatment and counseling.
The teenagers are sent to Western Maryland for six to nine months.
“They don’t have to worry about a lot of the things they worried about at home. They can relax here,” said Judy Hodel, the program manager at Green Ridge Regional Youth Center, in Flintstone.
To ease re-entry to the old surroundings, the centers have weekend home visits before the youth’s release “to get their feet wet,” Hodel said.
“It is going to be an adjustment,” she said. “Once he gets home, he’s going to realize that a lot has changed. We can talk about that.”
The programs at the camps were tougher in the late 1990’s, and were known as boot camps. They won the praise of many Maryland leaders, including Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who was the lieutenant governor.
But three of the camps, Meadow Mountain, Savage, and Backbone Mountain Camps, were shut down briefly after an investigation in the late 1990’s found that seven guards had abused, assaulted and used excessive force on youth. The investigation, which began after a series in The Baltimore Sun, found that guards punched, kicked and slammed the teenagers to the ground.
In 2001, the camps began using a “therapeutic model” of treatment, Cleary said. Unlike the military-based treatment of the boot camps, this therapeutic model focuses on building relationships with youth while providing treatment, Hodel said.
The wilderness scares some of the teenagers and they often tell staff members they are afraid of bears.
“It’s a physical and mental challenge,” Hodel said. “Many of our youth are afraid of the woods and some of the wildlife out there. I always tell them that going to the city at night without lights is scarier than walking through the woods at night by myself.”