Kids, some as young as 11, don’t belong in prison.
Earlier this month, we were reminded why. An independent audit of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland produced by The Center for Children’s Law and Policy documented the dangerous conditions of the youth prison and its failure to provide children with adequate care, including mental health treatment and education.
It was a stunning rebuke, but it wasn’t a surprise. Science, child development experts and experience all tell us that children are better served receiving rehabilitative services closer to home in a setting designed to make sure that they get the care they need.
The kids sent to Long Creek are largely warehoused and forgotten until a tragedy — like a suicide — catapults them into the headlines. At that point, it’s too late.
Every day Long Creek remains open, more kids are put in jeopardy of violence. Every day a child spends at Long Creek is a day that’s lost instead of aiding in their education and recovery. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has called for Long Creek’s closure.
The evidence is overwhelming. Long Creek represents a broken, irreparable system that is harming Maine kids and violating their constitutional rights.
The Maine Juvenile Code tasks Long Creek with providing kids “the necessary treatment, care, guidance and discipline to assist that juvenile in becoming a responsible and productive member of society.”
The 74-page Long Creek report shows that the facility is not meeting its statutory duties.
Instead, the report details a litany of horrors no person would wish on a child.
Children with intense mental health needs are marooned at a facility not designed nor equipped for therapeutic treatment.
They are physically unsafe, and inappropriate force is used by inexperienced and overwhelmed staff.
Youth are pushed deeper into the adult criminal justice system “because of behavior that stems from an unmet mental health need or disability.”
Staff rely on Google Translate to communicate with parents who are not fluent in English.
LGBTQ residents are bullied and harassed by staff and fellow residents alike.
The audit also found that kids are not getting the education they are legally entitled to: detained boys, who are held at the facility before trial, receive only half of the legally required education minutes per day; girls don’t consistently get full days of school; and youth who need special education services are not getting the services that Long Creek has agreed to provide them in their Individualized Education Programs.
The Long Creek report paints a picture of a Department of Corrections that has failed the youth in its care, but it also reminds us that the Department of Corrections is not the only state agency responsible for this mistreatment.
As we said last spring, multiple state systems have failed these kids, including most significantly the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Long Creek report backs this up. One of its two central recommendations is to examine and address how DHHS policies and practices failed to catch these struggling youth before they were sent to Long Creek.
The Legislature and the public must hold DHHS accountable for failing to keep our kids safe.
There are concrete steps that can be taken. The state should examine the continuum of care supported by DHHS, identify the key problems, and then demand the agency come up with a plan to fix them.
DHHS contracts with psychiatric residential treatment facilities that are too often a pipeline to Long Creek. That needs to change. If those service providers are just temporary stops on the way to prison for kids, new providers should be found.
For the kids currently inside, we must require that the Department of Corrections and DHHS do an individual assessment of each child with mental illness at Long Creek and find a suitable placement that is developmentally and therapeutically appropriate as soon as possible.
Holding our state agencies accountable for the failures at Long Creek should not require Herculean changes or expenditures.
The numbers of kids who need our help is small, between 65 and 85, some of whom are as young as 11.
We should be able to treat so few kids without locking them up in an expensive and violent prison.
In order for us to honor our fundamental values and to provide the necessary treatment, care, guidance and accountability for youth in the juvenile justice system, we must seek more humane and effective solutions, and we must close Long Creek.
Alison Beyea is the executive director of the ACLU of Maine.
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