Corrections Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick will convene a panel of experts in Maine this week to review suicide prevention and LGBT policies at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.
The meeting follows the recent suicide of a transgender teen at the facility, the first death of a child in state custody in more than 20 years.
Fitzpatrick says he’s open to any and all suggestions, and he also says it may also be time to consider creation of a state psychiatric facility for mentally ill youth.
As the Maine attorney general’s office and state police continue their investigation into the suicide of 16-year-old Maze Knowles, Fitzpatrick says he wants to know what, if anything, Long Creek can do better.
Knowles had been held at Long Creek since August after setting fire to his house. He had a long history of mental illness, but because he had not been sentenced in court, he had not been committed to the facility. Instead, he was what’s known as a temporary detainee” and Maze’s mother, Michelle Knowles, believes that’s why he was not getting a full range of mental health treatment at Long Creek.
Because of the pending investigation, Fitzpatrick declined to discuss the Knowles case, but he says, in general, there’s no difference in the way kids receive treatment.
“In terms of medical and mental health care there isn’t a large difference between the detainee and the committed population. Any child that enters Long Creek is assessed within hours of their admission, whether they’re there as a detention resident or a committed resident. And then, from that point forward, any needs that are identified are addressed,” he says.
For example, if a detainee has mental health counseling needs or has been prescribed psychiatric medication, Fitzpatrick says that will be continued. And if a mental health or medical need arises during confinement, Fitzpatrick says that will also be addressed.
He says the only difference for detainees and committed residents is the kind of correctional programming each gets because of a detainee’s uncertain and more limited length of stay.
“The challenging part about programming for detainees is we’re not in charge of how long they’re gonna be there. They could be there for two days. They could be there for two months. It’s very hard to do correctional programming, which is long-term programming,” Fitzpatrick says.
What’s also challenging, he says, is the complexity of mental health needs that youth are presenting at Long Creek.
“What is actually escalating is the need level, the acuity of the illness that these kids are coming in with and it just goes beyond the resources of a juvenile justice facility,” he says. “Some individuals, some youth who have significant trauma histories and mental health histories and are potentially suicidal, are dangerous on some level, do not have secure places to go, secure treatment facilities to go.”
Fitzpatrick says the Department of Health and Human Services does a good job trying to secure community placements for kids where appropriate such as crisis beds in private hospitals. But he says the reality is that those private facilities have the right to turn down juveniles, especially older kids, who they think pose a safety risk to property or to staff.
“So, Long Creek becomes sort of a holding facility for children who might really have needs that go well beyond the resources of a Long Creek. Certainly, we work closely with DHS and DHS has a presence in the Long Creek facility, but we’re, as a state, really struggling with that piece and trying to figure out a better answer to that need for these kids,” he says.
For adults with serious mental illness there is the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center but there is nothing equivalent in Maine for juveniles. Fitzpatrick says it’s an idea that has been floated before but now it could take on more significance.
“We’d be certainly willing to work closely with DHS on the concept of, gee what that would look like? It wouldn’t be an adult facility. It would be something specializing in youth and juveniles, and how could we make it secure and therapeutic at the same point?” he says.
A psychologist himself, Fitzpatrick says he has tried to infuse mental health treatment into everything connected to the Department of Corrections. He says he’s confident in his staff training and department protocols but remains open to doing anything that can improve the juvenile corrections system.