The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maine has filed suit against the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the Department of Corrections, and medical and dental providers on behalf of an 11-year-old boy who was allegedly beaten by corrections officers. The ACLU’s complaint also says the boy was denied adequate medical treatment. The case is prompting a call for possible legislative or judicial oversight of Long Creek.
The boy, identified in the lawsuit as AI, is a native of Somalia who's has been diagnosed with mental illness. According to the complaint, AI spent more than a month at Long Creek after an incident at a local swimming pool. Charges against him were eventually dismissed.
But while he was at Long Creek, attorney Zach Heiden of the ACLU of Maine says medical providers failed to treat him. Heiden says AI's diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder makes him prone to act out. It also requires medication, which Heiden says he did not get.
"Our client has mental health needs and he wasn't provided for those needs,” says Heiden. “Instead, he was punished for symptoms associated with his disability. Ultimately, he was punished so harshly that they knocked his front teeth out."
Heiden says the boy was seriously injured at Long Creek during an incident last summer when he was being disciplined for one of his outbursts. He'd been confined to a cell alone for several hours and grew agitated when his requests to use the bathroom were denied. AI then threatened to trigger the sprinkler system. Heiden says that's when two guards entered his cell without using de-escalation procedures.
"They forcefully grabbed him and slammed his head into a bare, metal bed frame,” Heiden says. “He was terrified. He was apologizing and yet he was still brutally attacked by two, adult male guards."
After the attack, which is believed to have been captured on video, Heiden says Long Creek officials didn't provide AI with emergency dental care that could have saved his two front teeth. Instead, the lawsuit says medical providers spent about two hours placing AI in shackles to transport him to the Emergency Room where an on-call physician determined he should be seen by an oral surgeon. But Heiden says that didn't happen for nearly a week.
"It took the prison six days to finally have our client seen by a dentist and at that point it was too late for him to have emergency dental care."
According to the lawsuit, Long Creek staff failed to notify AI's mother about her son's injury and when she showed up and saw his missing teeth she was told, falsely, that AI had tripped and fallen on his bed.
The ACLU says defendants used excessive force, were deliberately indifferent to AI's medical needs and failed to accommodate his mental illness under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The group's lawsuit follows the suicide of a transgender teen at Long Creek in 2016 and an independent review by the Center for Children's Law and Policy that found serious deficiencies at the facility, including staff not equipped to handle the serious mental health needs of residents and evidence of inappropriate use of force. Now one legislative leader is weighing in.
"We're failing our kids,” says Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon. “We absolutely are, and we should be looking in a proactive way in making sure that state government and our departments are running in a way that protect them."
Gideon says the recent killings of children in two separate families, allegedly at the hands of their parents, and the concerns raised about treatment of youth like AI at Long Creek show that the LePage administration is not doing its job. “What we are finding right now is so many emergencies landing in our lap because we simply haven’t taken care of things the way they should be, I think this administration is not doing its job in certain areas,” Gideon says.
She says it may be time for the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee or the courts to intervene.
"There are things that are going on here that are easily identifiable that need to be remedied immediately,” she says.
The commissioner for the Department of Corrections said he could not discuss pending litigation, and a spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment on Gideon's remarks.
Maine Public reporter Mal Leary contributed to this report.