Capitol Notebook: Looking at Long Creek through a wider lens

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Maine’s major juvenile corrections facility in South Portland has been in the spotlight recently after the news broke of a suicide there. In the hours after that horrible tragedy, shock and sadness swept through the Long Creek Youth Correctional Center, and staff reeling from the news worried about the impact on the other young people held at the facility.

The ACLU of Maine, along with a Boston-based gay rights organization, issued a press release and revealed that the suicide was a transgender boy. The groups raised an alarm about policies at the facility, especially as it relates to LGBT youth and mental health issues, and an ACLU of Maine official described the institution as “unsafe.”

This terrible event, and the publicity that the groups have brought to it, should lead to a wider investigation and a full understanding of policies for LGBT youth at Long Creek, and for the treatment of mental illness there.

But the publicity should not obscure the fact that on a daily basis, scores of staff work very hard to help kids who have been placed there after failures that often begin in families that were unable or unwilling to take care of their children. (Disclosure: I volunteer at Long Creek, and am a board member of the Friends of Long Creek.)

There was a memorial service a day or two after the suicide of Charles Maisie Knowles, who was born a girl, but identified as a boy. Since a very young age, Charles had struggled with gender identity issues, and mental illness.

The community came together to share its grief and support one another. Michelle Knowles, the mother of Charles, was asked by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick if she would like to say a few words to the staff, state officials and young people who were gathered. She told the group that Charles had asked why she had saved him after previous suicide attempts. She told him that someday he would want to be saved and that Long Creek staff were trying to save him.

At that moment, according to someone who attended, there was not a dry eye in the room.

Long Creek is forced into dealing with kids in a correctional setting who should properly be treated in places more geared to handling the severe mental illness or drug problems that brought them there. And the institution is also hampered by a systemic failure that does not provide adequate support for young people alienated from their families. A lot of kids remain there because there are no other places for them to go.

The institution is little more than a decade away from its history of severe dysfunction, where kids were held in solitary and restraints for long periods, and the corrections officers were at odds with the administration. In the early 2000s, there was a change in administration after the state had to settle a lawsuit brought by a young man for $600,000. The man had said he was kept in restraints and seclusion for longer periods than allowable.

After these troubles came to light, the youth center was renamed and a new facility was built. A veteran administrator, Rodney Bouffard, was brought in and began to turn it around. He had previous experience in the state’s troubled institutions, like AMHI and Pineland, and he began his job at Long Creek intending to reshape the atmosphere and focus on the kids, whom he knew individually.

“It’s a passion,” he said about his work, in a Portland Press Herald interview. “I love working with the kids and I hope someone will come to me and say, ‘You made a difference in my life.'”

The recent spotlight on Long Creek will be most helpful if it permits a wider view, and leads to better mental health services and treatment options for young people. With the right help, kids at Long Creek have a chance to build productive lives after they’re released. We shouldn’t give up on that goal, or on working to improve the service system that will help them get there.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.