An independent report by Maine researchers has added to calls for the state to phase out the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland in favor of smaller community-based facilities.

But Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said Thursday that the state is already moving toward a community-based model, and in the coming months, children with the most severe mental health diagnoses and cognitive impairments currently housed at Long Creek will be moved to secure psychiatric facilities.

“We closed Mountain View and we’re rethinking Long Creek,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to a shuttered youth detention facility in Charleston that has been converted to adult beds. “What it looks like in a year from now might be very different.”

Fitzpatrick was responding to a report released Thursday that calls for the state to move away from Long Creek – Maine’s only youth correctional facility – toward a community-based system of care that would keep young people closer to their homes, schools, peers and family, while still receiving treatment and care to rehabilitate them after juvenile criminal charges.

Fitzpatrick said he agrees, but he also believes there will always be a need for a secure facility to house children and young people with the most serious profiles of criminality.

The 26-page policy paper – authored by Mara Sanchez and Erica King of the Justice Policy Program at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, and Jill Ward of the Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law – is the result of a summit held in Portland in November of more than 100 state officials and local and nationally recognized juvenile justice policymakers and researchers.

“Research and our own experience tell us that there are more effective ways to meet the needs of system-involved youth that strengthen communities and promote public safety,” Ward said in a prepared statement. “Evidence suggests that confinement does not work for the vast majority of young people, and it actually increases a youth’s likelihood of being re-arrested. Maine has the opportunity to re-imagine a system that produces better outcomes for our young people and our communities.”

DHHS PROVIDES FEW PLAN DETAILS

What remains unclear is how that community-based system would be structured and paid for, most likely requiring legislative action and buy-in at the highest levels of state government.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is leading the effort to find new placements for the most acutely ill people at Long Creek, declined to give specifics about when residents would be moved, where they would go, how much it would cost and what factors would be used to determine who would be better served outside of a correctional setting.

“This project will serve a handful of individuals who are currently at Long Creek Youth Development Center, that DHHS will work with the Department of Corrections to identify, as well as some Maine children who have been receiving care outside of our state,” Emily Spencer, a DHHS spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. “As we’ve said before, we are more than capable of caring for our own here in Maine – this is an exciting opportunity to do just that.”

Fitzpatrick said that, depending on the outcome of the DHHS effort to move children out of Long Creek, the 160-bed facility could in the future be partially or totally re-purposed for adult prisoners to help alleviate a current shortage of adult correctional beds, although he gave no firm commitment to that strategy and said all options are being evaluated.

Fitzpatrick made the comments in response to questions about the report by the USM and law school researchers.

EARLIER REPORT FOUND PROBLEMS

Those policy recommendations, which would require sweeping, statewide changes to how the justice system handles troubled kids, come roughly one month after the release of a separate review of Long Creek by the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy. That outside group found the facility’s staff is not trained or equipped to handle the high number of children placed there with serious mental health diagnoses, who are largely in need of mental health treatment and are less suited for the behavior modification programs designed to rehabilitate youth found responsible for committing crimes.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, a co-chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she applauds any effort to remove from Long Creek the most acutely ill young people.

“You don’t lock kids up and make them better,” Warren said. “It doesn’t work. Even Republican governors are paying attention to the data and the evidence.”

Warren was doubtful, however, that re-purposing Long Creek into an adult prison was the right decision, and urged Fitzpatrick and DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton to consider using the facility to alleviate the explosion in demand for substance abuse treatment facilities in the state.

MORE SCRUTINY AFTER BOY’S DEATH

The heightened scrutiny of the state’s juvenile justice system followed the 2016 suicide at the facility of a 16-year-old transgender boy, Charles Maisie Knowles, the first such death at Long Creek in recent memory.

Knowles had a long and well-documented mental health diagnosis, and according to his mother, was not receiving adequate treatment despite repeated requests for more attention and care from doctors.

Knowles’ death was a flash-point for the Department of Corrections. The facility’s superintendent at the time, Jeffrey D. Merrill II, was placed on leave five months later and quickly resigned. Merrill was replaced by Caroline Raymond, the former CEO of Day One, a nonprofit substance abuse and behavioral health treatment organization for adolescents based in South Portland that had done extensive work at Long Creek.

BEST PRACTICES IN OTHER STATES

The changes recommended by the USM and law school researchers would bring Maine into line with best practices recognized in other states and by juvenile justice researchers nationwide, and could lead to better outcomes for youth who have contact with the justice system, the paper’s authors wrote.

Maine spends about $15 million annually to run Long Creek, which was built to house a maximum of about 160 youths. Today, roughly 50 children and young people are housed there under orders from a judge. Others, who are simply detained, are housed at Long Creek temporarily as they wait for their cases to be adjudicated.

Prior evaluations of Long Creek have found that some children and young people are placed there by judges because there is nowhere else for them to go.

Advocates have long decried the lack of community-based options for youth, who are better served by staying in touch with their families, peers, community schools and organic networks of support, they have said.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.