Like many of the adults who are incarcerated in Maine, most of the juveniles who are held at the state’s juvenile detention facility have long term, and often complex, behavioral health needs. But, because these services are too scarce, the Long Creek Youth Development Center, like county jails, has become a holding facility for these young Mainers.
The majority of the young Mainers held at the South Portland facility aren’t a danger to other people. Rather they are held there because there is no other place for them to go, according to a report delivered to a juvenile justice task force.
“They needed someplace to go other than home, and there were no existing program slots available, or available program slots were considered inappropriate or ineffective, so the authorities sent them to Long Creek,” the report, commissioned by the Maine Juvenile System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force, said.
This is not the first report to chronicle the failings of Long Creek. It adds urgency to the need to find an alternative for the detention facility, which both the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Corrections are working to address by creating and expanding community-based resources.
The report notes that Maine has made a lot of progress in reducing the number of juveniles held at Long Creek, diverting 85 percent of eligible teens to more appropriate, often community-based programs. But, it found, many of the teenagers held at the detention center would be better cared for outside the facilities, if — and this is the big if — they and their families had access to the treatment and programs they need to be successful.
The report, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty said in a conversation with the Bangor Daily News, is “a validation of what we’re doing and what we’re investing in.”
As the report notes, DHHS is working to rebuild numerous services, from in-home therapies that are proven to be effective in helping both children and their families to shelters and psychiatric residential treatment facilities.
Todd Landry, director of Children and Family Services at DHHS, acknowledged that this work can be slow and uneven, with some rural areas lacking needed services and families sometimes waiting too long to get services they need. “In the past, we had active dismantlement of the system,” he said.
It will take time to rebuild it, he added.
In the shorter term, lawmakers can take a good, if small, step forward by more clearly defining who can be held at Long Creek and for how long. LD 1684 would set 12 as the minimum age for prosecution for a crime in Maine and 14 as the minimum age for detention at Long Creek. Currently, there are no minimum age requirements. The bill would also lift the requirement that juveniles committed to Long Creek remain there for at least one year. It would also ensure juveniles retain their rights to court-appointed lawyers.
These are common sense changes that are overdue. They won’t solve the bigger problems that keep too many Maine youths in detention, but they should further a fuller conversation about how to build up the services needed to help vulnerable children rather than locking them away.