Three experts in juvenile justice urged lawmakers on Wednesday to do a top-to-bottom assessment of how the state responds to troubled children.
The recommendation came during a joint meeting of two legislative committees to discuss ongoing problems at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, the state’s only correctional facility for youths, where a suicide by a transgender teen in 2016 and turmoil among the staff have highlighted what advocates say is a failing model of rehabilitating children accused of crimes.
The three policy experts urged lawmakers to think in broader terms.
“It’s not about Long Creek or DHHS or the Department of Corrections,” said Jill M. Ward, project manager at the Maine Center for Juvenile Policy and Law at the University of Maine School of Law. “It’s about what are our responses to kids, and what are the outcomes.”
Ward praised the Department of Corrections for participating in a September report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy that identified systemic weaknesses in how Long Creek administers programs and treats children.
Doing a similar assessment for programs outside of the juvenile justice program means winning the cooperation of the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers many of the wrap-around programs that families and children interact with before, during and after they are incarcerated.
“It’s not sexy and immediate and fun but it’s really important to understand where the gaps and the needs are before you start expending resources,” Ward said. “The assessment is about doing your homework.”
Absent from the meeting were representatives from DHHS and the Department of Corrections, who did not respond to invitations from the committees to discuss the situation and provide information.
Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick declined to comment.
Mara Sanchez, a researcher at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, emphasized that research has shown that alternative models of treating youthful offenders are more effective and cost less than the large-scale institutionalization at places like Long Creek, where children are removed from their home communities. The preferred model is community-based and diverts children away from incarceration and into local programs to help them and their families.
A common factor among many of these children is trauma, abuse or abandonment by people in their lives who are supposed to support them.
“I think we have to look at who these youth are, what they’re presented with,” said Tonya DiMillo, a social worker and the chair of the Long Creek board of visitors, which monitors conditions at the youth jail. “A lot of these young people come from chronic poverty. They’ve been abused by those who they’re supposed to trust. I think they’ve been wired to mistrust. I don’t think we’re looking at root causes.”
Legislators vowed to meet again in the future to continue the discussion about Long Creek and how to improve juvenile justice in the state, but no firm dates have been set – the legislative session ends in two weeks, and after the 2018 statewide elections, lawmakers will have a new governor and administration to contend with.