AUGUSTA, Maine — A task force aiming to reduce the number of children detained in Maine wants to start by simply barring the state from holding children accused of no crime, a solution that the administration of Gov. Janet Mills said could have unintended consequences.
A report commissioned by the Maine Juvenile System Assessment and Reinvestment Task Force last year found 53 percent of children at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland are imprisoned because they “could not go home.” It cited a lack of available treatment options for behavioral health or substance use disorders, or parental issues.
Nearly half the children brought to Long Creek are released after only three days. To address that, the task force is recommending the Legislature repeal a section of Maine law that allows the state to detain children who have not been charged with a crime at Long Creek because there is no suitable person able to supervise them.
The task force has said the state will need the detention facility to remain open until it builds other infrastructure to house at-risk youth. But that lack of structure has meant children either end up in Long Creek or get placed out of state for years.
Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, is concerned repealing that provision would leave the state with no place to put those children and that the bill could conflict with current actions it’s taking to address the issue. Proponents say the state hasn’t put enough resources toward the issue to address it quickly.
“That child still has to be somewhere safe and secure,” said Linda Pistner, deputy counsel to Mills, during testimony before a legislative committee on Wednesday, “and right now there is no ‘safe and secure.’ So where would those children go?”
Jill Ward, a member of the task force and project manager for the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law, said the idea is to spur the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Human Services to find alternative placements for those children. She said the current rate of children incarcerated shows the state’s detention practices do not line up with their purpose of rehabilitation and preventing harm.
The bill suggests reducing Long Creek’s population by 25 percent a year until 2022, and proposes $3.5 million to fund more community-based and therapeutic programming, with $2.5 million of that money going to the DOC. It directs the state to locate possible locations for smaller therapeutic residential facilities by next year.
Colin O’Neill, the association commissioner for juvenile services at the DOC, said the issue is the available programming in the state does not meet the needs of all at-risk children. He said most children have gone through several residential treatment programs and have run out of options before going to Long Creek and could “end up on the street” if it isn’t available.
The report found nearly 70 percent of prisoners sentenced to serve time at Long Creek received behavioral health care services beforehand, and 65 percent had lived with families who were under investigation by child welfare caseworkers for allegations of abuse or neglect.
Pistner in general urged caution on the bill while the administration is doing its own work to reduce incarceration. That includes working with the Department of Education to put more restorative practices and behavioral health services in schools and a $3.3 million federal grant to provide housing for homeless youth.
Pistner also said DHHS is working to get the state compliant with the federal Family First Act, which provides funding for prevention strategies designed to keep children in their homes and new requirements for residential care placements, by October 2021. But Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, said that’s not fast enough.
“Clearly the state doesn’t have the resources to reduce incarceration right now,” he said. “This bill would allow them to do that.”