Independent review finds Long Creek youth center understaffed, ill-equipped

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The Long Creek center in South Portland houses youths arrested in all 16 Maine counties. The ACLU of Maine says the distance from home and community support hampers treatment for some residents. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)

An independent review of Maine’s only youth correctional facility has found that too many young people with serious, unmet mental health needs are being housed at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and urged a top-to-bottom rethinking of juvenile justice throughout the state.

The report, compiled by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a national organization focusing on youth justice policy, found that Long Creek is chronically understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the serious mental health needs of young residents who often are placed there because there is no where else for them to go. The review was commissioned by the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group and released Wednesday.

“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,” the report found.

Employees there told evaluators that between a quarter and half the young people housed at Long Creek could be released to the community. The report also recommends state policy makers and legislators engage in a frank discussion about the future of the facility, whose model of treatment and care—with large groups of youth housed in one place, often out-numbering the staff— has been replaced in most states and may not be effective at treating many of the people who are housed there.

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“A facility designed like Long Creek limits how well and how intensively staff can work with young people on skill-building and behavior change,” the report found. “When staff are charged with supervising a group of over 20 youth at any one time, it is difficult to devote the time and energy needed to dive deeply enough into an individual youth’s needs to effect long-term change.”

Operating Long Creek is also expensive. A single resident costs roughly $250,000 per year to house and treat. In 2016, the state spent $15.28 million at Long Creek, with the vast majority, about $15 million, coming from state funds, according to the state Open Checkbook. Most of that money is spent on staff salaries and benefits.

The assessment, long-awaited by advocacy groups in the region, comes following the suicide of a 16-year-old transgender boy, Charles Maisie Knowles, whose death Nov. 1, 2016 prompted renewed scrutiny of how Long Creek treats LGBTQ youth and young people with serious mental health problems.

Although a review by the Attorney General’s office found that staff did not mistreat Knowles, the death was the first in decades at the facility, and prompted criticism from outside organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, mental health experts and GLAD. Knowles’ mother, in a series of interviews, said she begged staff and doctors there to give her son the mental health treatment he needed, but her requests were ignored or rebuffed, she said previously.

The report specifically called out mistreatment of LGBTQ youth by other residents and staff, and cited a lack of policy guidance about how state employees should handle LGBTQ issues there.

The circumstances at Long Creek have led to dangerous, unsafe conditions for both residents and employees, who must deal with the daily challenges of children with profound mental health problems, limiting or complicating their ability to fulfill the facility’s core mission of rehabilitating youth and reintegrating them into society, the report found.

Long Creek is the only youth detention facility in Maine, and houses youth from all 16 counties who are arrested or run afoul of the law. The population there falls into two broad categories: youth who are detained and youth who are committed.

Like adults in county jail, detained youth are awaiting the final outcome of their legal case, with the length of their stay ranging from a few days to several weeks or months. Circumstances for detained youth can also change quickly if a judge or other authority decides they belong elsewhere or can be released to the custody of a parent or guardian. Committed youth are more permanent residents whose legal cases have been fully resolved, and will sometimes spend years at the facility receiving treatment and counseling while attending the A.R. Gould School, the in-house educational arm of the facility that offers classes to all grade levels for people housed there.

In response to the report and its findings, the Americal Civil Liberties Union of Maine called for the facility’s closure.

“Long Creek is failing Maine children and needs to be closed,” said Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “The report released today demonstrates the ongoing and systemic problems at Long Creek and an urgent need for action. Children are being warehoused in a violent and unsafe facility, often far away from home and community support.”

In calling for the facility to close, the ACLU highlighted abuse by staff of residents and consistently high levels of resident-on-resident violence, the inappropriate use of force by staff, and a failure to provide legally mandated education and special education services.

“Maine is failing these kids, some of whom are as young as 13 years old. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education have let them down and the Department of Corrections can’t keep them safe,” Beyea said. “The stories of violence and abuse are too much to bear. Community-based treatment closer to home is the best for struggling kids and for their communities. Locking kids up at Long Creek is a failed model and goes against everything science tells us that children need for appropriate development. This has gone on too long.”

Boston-based GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, a nonprofit legal rights organization, was also highly critical of Long Creek in the wake of the report.

“The underlying take away from this assessment confirms what we already know: prisons do not work for youth,” said Mary L. Bonauto, Civil Rights Project Director at GLAD, which represents four youth currently or recently incarcerated at Long Creek.

“Long Creek is not designed, built or staffed to meet the needs of the youth that are sent there. We all need to seize the opportunity we have to require a systemic look at how to provide resources, support, and development to make a real difference for justice-involved youth.”

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