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How many times is the State of Maine going to pay the same group to tell us basically the same things about Long Creek Youth Development Center?
The most recent report from the Center for Children’s Law and Policy about Maine’s youth detention facility — the third time in four years this organization has been asked to look into Maine’s juvenile justice system — once again details serious and persistent issues at the South Portland facility.
Detainees are left with nothing to do. Mental health needs are left unmet. Staff vacancies go unfilled. Dangerous restraint practices have been used. All of these contribute to dangerous conditions, for detainees and for staff.
“With little to do during the day and no staff presence on the pods, youth are left to their own devices and engage in disruptive behavior,” the investigators wrote.
“There was no shortage of stories of inadequate mental health care,” they added elsewhere in the report.
“External conditions such as inadequate [mental health] services in [the] community add to the difficulties,” investigators found. “Maine still does not have a secure psychiatric facility where youth with mental health problems can go and psychiatric programs in the community still do not accept, or quickly eject, youth who engage in violent behavior.”
This reemphasizes an already supported conclusion: It’s time to close Long Creek and shift to providing better behavioral health services that can actually help these youth offenders improve.
The lack of adequate community behavioral health services for these youth cannot continue to be a self-fulfilling barrier that perpetuates the status quo, which is not fair to the overworked and underprepared staff at Long Creek. And it certainly is not fair to the many youth detainees who find themselves in a detention facility when what they really need are mental health services.
That the type of secure youth psychiatric facility mentioned in the recent report doesn’t exist in Maine is ultimately a choice by the state. It’s a choice to keep clinging to this model of incarcerating youth at Long Creek rather than turning to other treatment-driven models.
Make no mistake, other models exist. A 2017 report also from the Center for Children’s Law and Policy recommended that the state look into smaller, home-like settings with intense staffing, for example.
Atlee Reilly is the legal director for Disability Rights Maine, which has oversight of Long Creek. We agree with his reaction to this newest report from the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
“Maine continues to ask Long Creek to do what it is not capable of doing,” Reilly said. “This has to end. Incarceration is not treatment.”
Maine cannot keep waiting for more of those outside services to appear. Instead, a plan to close Long Creek should be a catalyst in the push to expand those services.
Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that would have required the state to develop a plan to close Long Creek by 2023, but unfortunately that bill was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills.
As this newest addition to the string of reports makes clear, Long Creek continues to be a “development” center in name only. Too many of these young people have been incarcerated for non-violent offenses when they should be receiving mental health support.
Again, this is a new report, but the underlying issues are well established.
“Long Creek houses many youth with profound and complex mental health problems, youth whom the facility is neither designed for nor staffed to manage,” The Center for Children’s Law and Policy wrote in its 2017 report. “Staff and administrators at Long Creek were the first to admit that the facility is not the right place for many of the youth in its care.”
Here we are, after years of the same debate, and not a whole lot seems to have changed at the beleaguered facility. Yes, there have been some improvements in developing community-based alternatives. Yes, the state had been making progress in reducing the number of detained juveniles, though there was a recent influx of high risk kids at the facility. The recent report states that new leadership has “made a number of significant changes at the facility.”
But many of the same fundamental challenges remain, continuing to point to an obvious conclusion: Develop a plan to close the place, already.