SOUTH PORTLAND — Three months into her new job as superintendent of Long Creek Youth Development Center, Caroline Raymond attended a basketball game between the center’s team and Old Orchard Beach High School.

It was supposed to be a mismatch – Old Orchard plays in a more competitive class – so after Long Creek won by one basket in the final minute, Raymond found herself tearing up as she watched the players celebrate on the court.

In that moment, it meant something to the kids, so it meant something to her, too.

“We really work hard to find those small successes for these kiddos, because there are lots of challenges, too,” she said.

Raymond, 47, has taken over Maine’s only juvenile detention facility at a tenuous time. Last year, she said, was one of the worst in Long Creek’s history, and calls to close the facility have gotten louder.

The center endured the high-profile suicide of a transgender boy in November 2016 – the first suicide in decades. The following March, three Long Creek residents escaped during a camp outing, stole a car and crashed it. Less than a month later, Raymond’s predecessor as superintendent, Jeffrey Merrill, resigned amid a still-unexplained investigation. And an independent audit conducted last September concluded Long Creek lacked leadership, was understaffed and not equipped to handle the mental health needs of many of its residents.

Some, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, have said the time has come to phase out Long Creek in favor of an entirely community-based model for juvenile justice – something other states have done. That would mean moving youths into group homes that favor therapy over punishment.

As of last week, officials said Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland was home to 49 full-time residents and another 15 young people who were being held awaiting their sentencing. Of that total, 13 were girls. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Long Creek houses males and females under the age of 21 who have been convicted of felony crimes, often violent crimes. It also detains youths who have been charged with a serious crime but have yet to be sentenced. The population has evolved over the last several years to include more youths with mental health and substance abuse issues. Those who are committed to Long Creek have indeterminate sentences, which means that staff there has some discretion over the timing and terms of their release.

‘SHE REALLY CARES ABOUT THE KIDS’

In an extended interview at Long Creek last week, Raymond acknowledged the tough task ahead, but said she took the job knowing full well its challenges.

It’s still early, but Raymond appears to have plenty of supporters.

Her boss, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick, said she stood out during a nationwide search even without a significant background in corrections. For the last two decades, Raymond has worked for a local youth substance abuse program called Day One, although there was significant overlap between the clients she served there and residents at Long Creek.

Ned Chester, a longtime juvenile attorney and member of the state’s juvenile justice board, said he is optimistic about Raymond’s ability to continue Long Creek’s transition from traditional youth prison to therapeutic, educational facility.

“I think the fact that she has experience in community-based resources as well as corrections-based resources means that she’s a good person to be in charge at a time when the general landscape is beginning to shift,” he said. “She’s really bright and she really cares about the kids.”

Tonya DiMillo, head of Long Creek’s board of visitors, has been similarly impressed with Raymond’s willingness to open the facility’s doors and collaborate with the community – something that has not always happened in the past.

But the calls for Long Creek’s closure are not likely to go away just because it has a new leader.

Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said the shift is already happening in other states and that Maine – which was once a leader in juvenile justice reform – is falling behind.

“Good leaders make a difference,” Beyea said, adding that she doesn’t know Raymond well enough to assess her job performance. “But it doesn’t change the fundamental fact that the science is clear: Kids should not be locked up.”

Research has shown that confinement often increases the likelihood that a youth will be rearrested.

Raymond said she doesn’t take personally the calls for Long Creek’s closure, although she doesn’t agree that it should happen. She believes there will always be a need for some type of secure facility for juveniles who pose a threat to public safety.

As long as there is such a facility, though, and as long as she has control over it, she plans to keep making it better.

“If we’re asking these kids to be better, we need to ask the same of ourselves, too,” she said.

‘WE ALWAYS WANT TO BE BETTER’

Raymond grew up in Portland. During trips to the Maine Mall with her mother as a teenager, she remembers passing a brick building on the hill into South Portland and saying, “I’m going to work there someday.”

The building was the former Maine Youth Center, the precursor to Long Creek.

Raymond worked at the youth center because Day One, a substance abuse organization for youth in southern Maine, treated its residents. Similarly, when Long Creek was built in the early 2000s, her work at Day One overlapped considerably with Long Creek. The number of youths who end up at Long Creek with substance abuse issues has never been higher. She even had a satellite office at the youth detention facility.

The opportunity to take over at a facility she knew well was enticing but risky.

Intermittent problems have been documented there more or less since it opened. Staffing problems. Violence among residents. Funding cuts. In 2014, there was an increase in assaults involving padlocks, which prompted the facility to stop issuing them to residents. None of those problems matched what the juvenile justice system looked like in Maine in the 1980s and ’90s, but problems have escalated in the last year.

When Raymond decided to apply for the job, she knew the previous superintendent had lost the support of staff and had made it harder to recruit and retain good people. She knew an audit was planned that likely would call for sweeping changes. She knew the public was starting to look more closely at Long Creek.

All of that, she said, is welcome.

The audit, conducted by the national Center for Children’s Law and Policy, produced no surprises, she said, and gave her a clear road map for improving the facility.

“We always want to be better, and that means owning mistakes, too,” she said.

FINDING COMMUNITY-BASED ALTERNATIVES

Chester credited the Department of Corrections for opening up Long Creek to scrutiny and for being transparent about deficiencies. Not long ago, he said, “that’s not something they were even willing to think about.”

Since Raymond has taken over, staffing levels have improved – 158 of 184 positions are now filled. Five new hires are trained specifically on mental health, something that had long been an area of deficiency.

And work has begun to help identify or create more community-based opportunities for youths who really don’t belong at Long Creek.

Chester believes Raymond will do well, but he also believes the momentum may be too strong to avoid the facility’s eventual closure.

“No matter how good you are, research says if you put kids in an institution, it doesn’t work,” he said.

During a tour of the facility last week, Raymond was warm and friendly to staff and residents and both groups seemed to respect and like her. She often referred to the residents as “kiddos,” and had colorful artwork done by some hanging in her office.

At one point, a male resident addressed her in a hallway and said he needed to speak to her. Something about money he still hadn’t received.

Raymond told the staff member who was accompanying the youth to see that a meeting was added to her schedule.

DRAMATIC DROP IN NUMBER INCARCERATED

Over the last decade or more, as research has solidified the position that incarcerating kids can have long-term negative consequences, Maine’s youth prison population has dropped dramatically.

Between 1997 and 2013, the number fell from 318 to 186.

In 2015, as the number continued to fall, the state closed its only other youth facility, Mountain View in Charleston. The remaining nine residents there were sent to Long Creek.

As of last week, Raymond said, there were 49 full-time residents and another 15 youths who were being held awaiting their sentencing. Of that total, 13 were girls. The annual budget is about $15 million, most of that tied up in staff salaries. Maine’s per-resident cost is among the highest in the country, according to a 2014 report by the Justice Policy Institute.

Because Long Creek was built to house about 160 residents, the facility feels almost empty. Some residential pods are not being used.

But although the number of residents is small, their needs are often great.

Unlike some other states, Maine does not have a psychiatric facility for juveniles. Similarly, there are few substance abuse treatment centers for juveniles, something Raymond knows well from her years at Day One.

That means youths whose criminal behavior was driven by either underlying mental health or substance abuse problems – or sometimes both – are being sent to Long Creek because there are few other options.

“The people that are here had to work really hard to get here,” Raymond said. “And we don’t get to pick and choose who comes here. Honestly, I’ve watched the judges struggle with this, too.”

Beyea and others, including Chester, the longtime juvenile attorney, however, said the shrinking population at Long Creek is proof that community-based programs are better options for most.

The reduction in youth incarceration is the result of keeping kids out of the court system whenever possible and diverted to group homes or other therapeutic settings. Why not do that 100 percent, some advocates have argued?

“We have to recognize that any touch with Long Creek for kids has a lifelong impact; it changes the trajectory of their lives,” Beyea said.

EXAMPLES FROM OTHER STATES

That feeling is shared 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. The three collectively authored a 26-page paper released last month that called for Maine to move away from incarcerating youth and toward a community-based system of care.

There have been examples where other states have phased out their youth correctional facilities.

Missouri’s model – small, residential programs that look nothing like prisons augmented with intensive treatment – for years has been lauded as a progressive example.

Last month, Wisconsin announced that it would close two state-run youth facilities in the wake of a class-action federal lawsuit that alleged widespread abuses, including use of solitary confinement and strip searches.

Raymond said Fitzpatrick, Maine’s corrections commissioner, has told her he plans to visit some states that have phased out their youth facilities – she hopes to be invited, too – but she said just because something works in another state doesn’t mean it will work here.

Missouri, for instance, can sentence 16-year-olds as adults for felony crimes and everyone over the age of 18 is funneled into the adult system.

At Long Creek, half of the committed population is in the 18-21 range. Raymond said she would much rather have them there than at the state prison in Warren or elsewhere.

BELIEVES STAFF NEEDS STRONG LEADER

Fitzpatrick has said he fully supports increasing community-based programs for youth, especially those with acute mental health needs. Last month, he said his department is “rethinking” Long Creek’s role and is working on more community-based options, with help from DHHS.

But he still believes there is a place for Long Creek, and Raymond agrees.

She said some of the residents there have committed violent crimes like rape, even murder or attempted murder. All it would take is for one of those residents to commit a violent act outside of Long Creek before the community starts to ask why that person wasn’t locked up.

“I think there will always be a need for some secure confinement,” she said. “I can’t foresee the community saying, ‘Put them out there without any fence around them.’ ”

Chester agreed that there would be risks in closing Long Creek, but he said the benefits may outweigh them.

Beyea said that even if people don’t agree on principle that kids should not be behind bars, they should be able to get behind the financial argument. Estimates suggest that it costs the state twice as much on average to treat a resident at Long Creek as it would to provide services to them in the community.

The debate about Long Creek’s future could define Raymond’s time as superintendent, but even those who want to see Long Creek close have noticed a shift – not just in Raymond’s leadership but at the departmental level.

“So far in the meetings I’ve had with her, her creativity and ability to recognize where things are moving in juvenile justice have stood out,” said DiMillo, who serves on the board of visitors. “We need to address the immediate needs of the juveniles who are there now but also look at how they get there.”

Beyea said she’s hopeful about the new trend toward transparency by the Department of Corrections. But she said the same cannot be said for another agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, which has a role as well.

“There is no doubt that there are so many systems that failed these kids long before they arrive at Long Creek,” she said.

Raymond agreed with all that but all she can control at the moment is the climate and culture within the walls of Long Creek.

She gave up a good job and lost three weeks of vacation to become superintendent. She said she did it because she believes the staff deserves a strong leader. One of the positives from the audit last fall was its assessment of Long Creek’s employees as professional and highly skilled.

“I want to be their champion,” she said. “I see how deeply staff here care about these kids, who sometimes are hard to love.”

She wants to be a champion for the kids, too. That’s why she doesn’t mind telling stories about crying at a basketball game, even if it’s a little embarrassing.

“There are still good stories that come out of this place,” she said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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