Dozens of Maine children who need residential treatment for severe mental health and behavioral issues are currently getting that care out of state. A bill before the state legislature aims to bring those kids back.
Advocates are cautioning that the state must ensure it has a stable treatment system that can care for those children once they return.
Some kids who need intense treatment for mental and behavioral health are placed in residential centers hundreds of miles away in neighboring New England states. Others are thousands of miles away.
Laura Mills of Whitneyville says her nearly 16-year-old daughter is at a facility in Illinois.
"She's 1500 miles from home," Mills says.
Mills says her daughter has been away for three years, and it’s a financial struggle to visit her.
"My daughter cannot make sense of all this,” she says. “Some days she wants a different mother, one who's doing more to get her home. I tell her I'm doing what I can, and that's why I'm here today."
Mills was testifying at public hearing before the state legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee in support of a bill that would require the state to bring kids who are in residential treatment outside of Maine back home.
Beyond the hardship of physical distance, some families — and children — say out of state placements can expose them to even more severe problems.
Fifteen-year-old Kaymi Hunt of Old Town says she spent three years at a facility in New Hampshire.
"I was nine-years-old when I left home and I was treated very badly,” Hunt says. “They were supposed to protect me, but they hit me. They would say it was my fault."
Hunt's mother, Tamara, says more than 40 families are currently suing that facility over allegations of abuse.
"I learned that under no circumstances will my child ever be entrusted to a facility, to DHHS or any caretaker again without my direct and present oversight,” she says. “She is too great a risk for abuse. Frankly, all of our out of state Maine children are."
Eric Meyer is the president and CEO of Spurwink, which provides residential treatment at locations throughout Maine.
"We are failing these children, their families and our state," he says.
He says the state faced a similar situation years ago and committed to bringing kids home. That effort was successful, he says, until about 10 years ago, when the state started to pull resources, and reimbursement rates became stagnant.
"I think it was a slow motion crisis, really one child at a time, till we reached this point again," says Meyer.
Meyer says Spurwink currently has 20 open beds, but he doesn't have the staff to provide treatment.
Paul Dann, the executive director of another treatment agency, NFI North, says he also struggles to attract and retain staff because of flat reimbursement rates.
"Imagine having a bachelor's degree, coming out and following your passion to work in the field and being paid anywhere between $11 and $14, $15 an hour," he says.
Reimbursement rates were recently bumped up two percent, and under this this bill, sponsored by Democratic Maine Rep. Lori Gramlich, they would be increased by 30 percent. While that may sound like a big jump, Gramlich says, it's needed to develop the staffing required to bring kids home.
"In the long run, it's more affordable to provide these services to kids in Maine," says Gramlich.
No one at the hearing opposed Gramlich's bill, but some asked lawmakers to proceed with caution.
Cathy Dionne of the Autism Society of Maine says before children can return from out of state treatment programs, the state must have a plan to make sure that treatment agencies here are equipped to provide quality care.
"If we bring them back and stop all future contracts, and they're telling us they don't have the staff or the skilled people, we need to build that,” she Dionne. “It's almost like we're putting the cart before the horse."
A representative of Disability Rights Maine emphasized that the bill addresses just one aspect of care for kids with behavioral and mental health issues. The advocacy group says investing in home and community based services for younger kids would greatly reduce the need for higher level, residential care as they grow.
Originally published March 29, 2019 at 5:16 p.m. ET.