The Maine Department of Corrections says it’s taking steps to improve the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, after an independent audit recently found serious safety and other deficiencies at the juvenile correctional facility.
DOC administrators say they are filling staff vacancies, hiring more mental health workers and undertaking a new initiative to treat kids with serious mental illness in the community.
At some point last summer, Maine Gov. Paul LePage called the leaders of the departments of Corrections, Health and Human Services and Education into his office and gave them a mandate. Corrections Commissioner Dr. Joseph Fitzpatrick says LePage asked them to overhaul the juvenile mental health system in the state so that kids with mental illness get adequate support in their communities.
Fitzpatrick says recent surveys found more kids than ever were arriving at Long Creek with complex mental health issues. More than 40 percent have been in residential treatment.
“There was a significant number of those kids having been in psychiatric hospitals, had major psychiatric diagnoses, had been in therapeutic group homes. They were kids coming in the door with a level of mental health need that we had never seen before,” he says.
So, in the past four months, under the leadership of DHHS, Fitzpatrick says those departments are working to fulfill the governor’s mandate. How they’ll create the system and what it will entail remains unclear.
At a briefing with reporters on Thursday, Fitzpatrick directed all questions about the mental health initiative for youth to DHHS. Calls and emails to the department were not returned. But one advocate had a quick take on the task at hand.
“The children’s mental health system, children’s behavioral health system in Maine is really in disarray,” says Peter Rice, legal director for Disability Rights Maine.
Rice says having the three departments collaborate on a new approach for mental health treatment for youth is welcome news, but there are big hurdles to overcome.
“There’s not enough providers. There’s home and community-based services across the state. There are some parts where kids have been waiting for over a year for Section 28 services, which are services for kids with autism and developmental disabilities,” he says.
Still, Rice says the most important thing is to address kids’ mental health needs and to avoid improper placement at Long Creek.
Fitzpatrick, whose background and training is as a psychologist, says that has been his priority even before an audit by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that chronic staffing shortages combined with the severe mental health problems of youth were creating dangerous and harmful conditions and practices at Long Creek.
Those include high numbers of youth engaging in self harm, frequent assaults and the inappropriate use of force. Staff were getting burned out and leaving. Others were being required to fill in. And more than 5,000 hours of overtime were logged this year.
“The audit report said, ‘You really have to recruit and put a major effort in recruitment and retention of staff,’ so we have brought our staff to a full contingency where the positions we need are staffed,” Fitzpatrick says.
Since July, 30 vacant line staff positions have been filled. In addition, eight acuity specialists and mental health technicians are coming aboard. Those are new positions to address mental health needs inside Long Creek, and Fitzpatrick says they are already making a difference.
“I think we’re safer today than we probably were three months ago, six months ago. Some of that is because the staffing is up. Some of it is because of some of the changes we’ve made,” he says.
And Fitzpatrick says there will be more changes to come. The DOC plans to privatize special education at Long Creek after the audit found it was not meeting its legally mandated obligation for special education services.
Alison Beyea of the ACLU of Maine says one of the biggest problems identified in the audit is that most kids at Long Creek are there for low-level offenses. They are kids as young as 13, she says, who are not getting their needs met.
“It’s great if the commissioner can take isolated steps to improve conditions in this moment. But the fundamental truth is there are no band aids to fix this. The only way to really solve the problem is to do what science tells us, what all the experts tell us, which is to get kids out of prison. They don’t belong there. They’re not safe and we can do a lot better,” she says.
The current number of youth at Long Creek is 68. That’s down from a high of 300 more than a decade ago.