Capitol Notebook: Maine should move cautiously on changes at Long Creek

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Care for Maine’s troubled teens has a long, fraught history.

When kids in the justice system were housed at the former Maine Youth Center, the lack of care and outright abuse brought an investigation from Amnesty International. Gov. Angus King changed the leadership, and built a new facility, renamed and re-purposed: the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

For many years, care at that facility has been improving. But the tragic suicide of a teen at Long Creek in 2016 brought calls for its closure and replacement by a system of community mental health care for kids in trouble.

With the new administration in Augusta, calls to limit or close Long Creek have gained traction. This means that Maine has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve care for young people who have gotten in trouble with the law. But the proposed changes could bring more problems if not done carefully.

(Disclosure: I am one of hundreds who volunteer at Long Creek; I work with a nonprofit organization, the Friends of Long Creek, which raises money for programs there, such as culinary arts and college classes.)

At the same time, state officials are planning another big change that would also impact the kids at Long Creek. A fast-moving plan would move adult women, now housed at the Windham Correctional Facility, to the Long Creek campus. This plan is inspired by overcrowding at Windham, and an underused Long Creek, which now houses around 50 kids in a building created for more than 100.

But the eagerness for change carries a risk that the kids at Long Creek, and those who will need a secure facility in the future, will not get the help they need.

Kids now come to Long Creek as young as 11, and no one wants to see them behind locked doors. Bills in the Legislature would raise the minimum age for incarceration. But for some, the intervention of services and programs at the facility can help redirect their lives.

The focused attention on youth and adult corrections, and a new corrections commissioner, should bring some welcome changes. But a shift of kids out of Long Creek needs to be matched with a commitment and real money to build the mental health treatment centers that could help many of the kids avoid incarceration. So far, those resources are not visible.

The programs for young people who still need to be in a secure facility should not be compromised. We need a wide range of programs for the many kids who struggle with depression, drug use, and often traumatic home situations.

Maine has a spotty record when it comes to providing mental health care for children and adults. That history includes the failures at the Augusta Mental Health Institute, the decertification of its successor, Riverview, under the LePage administration, and the failure to build a system of care for kids in trouble.

The state has often gone through phases of shutting down institutions, like Pineland and the Augusta Mental Health Institute, without the proper alternative structures in place to help those populations. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake this time.

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

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