BALTIMORE -- Linda D'Amario Rossi isn't really complaining when she sums up her predicament as the new director of Maryland's long-criticized juvenile detention system.

"You've got a legislature that says you're moving too fast," said Rossi, "and a governor who says do it and do it now."

Not surprisingly, she is taking her cues from the governor -- her boss, William Donald Schaefer. In the three months since the Juvenile Services Administration was made an independent department, the 41-year-old Rossi has taken steps to close the state's troubled Montrose School near Baltimore, brought in a panel of experts to help map plans to overhaul her agency, begun new treatment programs and sparked controversy by saying that the vast majority of those held in the state's juvenile institutions shouldn't be there.

Not all legislators worry that Rossi may be moving too quickly. But, officials say, there is little doubt that to be successful, Rossi will have to court a cautious General Assembly, convince skeptical judges that her department can deliver what she promises, and rally disheartened children's advocates who complain about a lack of commitment from the state.

Some wonder if Rossi, a newcomer to the state, is "political" enough to sell her programs.

She replies: "I have become more political now than I ever have in my whole life."

She has won supporters. "She's a dynamo," said state Sen. Raymond E. Beck (R-Carroll), who heads a joint legislative-judicial committee that oversees juvenile services. "Her biggest obstacle is to convince legislators and to convince the citizens that she can do this rehabilitation and cut recidivism without any detriment to the public safety."

Her commitment to deinstitutionalization has caused most worries. Rossi wants to empty at least half of the 1,000 beds in state training schools and other institutions.

"In any system, balance is the key," Rossi said. "And this system is off balance by having too many kids in institutions."

She says the state has judged some youths too harshly. Children who are not dangerous usually are not helped by being sent to institutions, she contends. But Rossi stresses that she's not advocating an end to detention facilities with tight security for dangerous youths.

"It's the huge public institution that I think has had its day," she said. "But secure detention -- we're still going to do it."

The latter part of her message is what legislators say they haven't heard enough about.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Charles (Buzz) Ryan (D-Prince George's) praises what Rossi has done at the department. "But my concern is that they are moving too fast without the {alternative} programs in place," he said.

"I think a great many legislators believe that some of her ideas are Utopian," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's). "She's perceived as getting rid of institutions and substituting group homes, and there is a category of juvenile just not compatible with group homes."

Rossi agrees that there may be a "perception" problem, but she believes her actions will win public confidence.

She has reduced by half the population at Montrose -- the institution for the state's toughest youths and a target of numerous lawsuits citing alleged abuses and overcrowding -- without releasing dangerous juveniles, she says. She plans to close the school, which now houses about 100 youths, by March.

She has increased the number of beds at smaller, closely supervised detention facilities. She has contracted with private vendors to provide alternatives to institutionalization, including new facilities for marine sciences programs and wilderness camps.

She also wants to increase surveillance of youths on probation and provide greater counseling.

Rossi admits she is talking about "major, major policy changes" in a department that juvenile services activists say was long treated as a "stepchild" by the state.

Schaefer took an initial step when he called for moving juvenile services out of the mammoth state health department. Although most of Schaefer's cabinet secretaries have come from his former office as mayor of Baltimore, Rossi was selected through a national search.

A Rhode Island native and former social worker, Rossi served for two years as deputy youth commissioner in Texas and was interviewed for a post in the D.C. government before accepting the Maryland job.

"She is very well recommended nationally," said Beck, who served on the interview panel. "I guess what impressed me is that she's grass-rootsy. She's very hard-working."

"I'm just so excited someone is trying something," said Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor active in children's issues, adding that one of the most disappointing aspects of state government "is that someone is always telling you why you can't do something."

"I think our judges, in the main, are pretty optimistic," said Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy Jr. "I think they think she's not a flash in the pan."

Nevertheless, some judges have expressed skepticism. Strong opposition from judges persuaded Rossi to set aside, at least temporarily, her initial plans to reduce the role of judges in placing children in specific juvenile services programs.

"Every judge I'm aware of has been crying for more diverse programs," said Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Mason. But, he added, judges will not turn over their role in the process before there is proof that the juvenile services programs are available and working.

Rossi says she understands that, although she is impatient. She has opened a number of new programs by shifting money in her $90 million budget, and she says she has been able to place the juveniles the courts have turned over to her agency.

"I think that ought to say something about our ability to do something," she said.

Rossi knows she will need the support of judges when she seeks changes in procedures to reduce the number of juveniles "waived" to the adult judicial system and to keep more of these youths under her agency's supervision. The adult system often fails to provide specialized counseling needed by youths, she says.

Although legislative approval is not required to further her policies of deinstitutionalization, she needs money from lawmakers for the smaller, more expensive programs she favors.

"Each state is different," she said. In Maryland, the governor, judges and legislators "are more intimately involved than anywhere I've ever seen. I've become more sensitive to that."