Like the state’s county jails and prisons, the Long Creek Youth Development Center has become a warehouse for young Mainers with mental illness. Predictably, it is failing to develop, let alone protect the safety of, the children who are housed there.

“Any outside observer should see the number of suicide attempts and self-harming gestures as clear evidence of the inappropriateness of Long Creek as a placement for many youth,” an independent group concluded after its assessment of the facility in South Portland.

Eighty-five percent of the youth committed to Long Creek had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions and roughly four in 10 had spent time in a residential mental health treatment facility before being sent to the detention facility. At Long Creek, these children are not getting the mental health services they need nor are they receiving legally required educational services.

Last October, a mentally ill transgender boy hanged himself while on suicide watch at Long Creek. Not long after that, corrections officials began to publicly acknowledge that the center cannot handle its large population of mentally ill inmates, which includes other young people who have tried to kill or hurt themselves. About a third of detainees at Long Creek are sent there by mental health facilities, a breakdown of that system as well.

The state has been working for decades to improve juvenile detention, and that work is ongoing with a welcome, but vague, announcement last week that many of the facility’s detainees will be moved to small, regional psychiatric facilities beginning in the spring. There have been successes — the number of juveniles being held has been cut in half in the last decade, the detention of low-risk offenders has essentially ended and graduation rates have risen.

However, continuing to hold children in an unsafe, inappropriate and expensive facility — it costs $250,000 a year per inmate at Long Creek — is a colossal failure that is harming these youths and wasting limited taxpayer resources.

Rather than seek to improve Long Creek, Maine needs to move to a new system that emphasizes treatment and that keeps kids in the community, preferably their own. There are many models, which are working in other states, that Maine can follow as it begins the work announced by Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick last week. An analysis of the state’s services for youth, including state and private sector programs, should guide this work to ensure coordination between programs and emphasize those that are working.

A first step is to move juvenile justice services out of the Department of Corrections.

Maine is one of just a few states where juvenile detention and rehabilitation is overseen by the Department of Corrections. In most states, these youths are in programs and facilities run by family and health departments. This is important because despite increasing emphasis on mental health, corrections departments are built largely on a model of punishment as a means of rehabilitation.

Nationally, states are moving away from warehousing juveniles in large detention facilities. Illinois and Kansas have closed such facilities, and Connecticut is poised to do so. Missouri and Massachusetts house small numbers of children is small facilities with a focus on therapeutic treatment.

The biggest change must be one of mindset. Gov. Paul LePage and his administration have made it clear that improving the lives of people living in poverty and with addiction and mental illness are a low priority. Staffing shortages and lack of direction and coordination at Long Creek mirror similar problems at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Nor has the administration prioritized improving the state’s corrections system, which is heavily reliant on underfunded county jails.

The Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which reviewed operations and conditions at Long Creek at the behest of the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, found that the facility’s low staffing and high population of teens with mental illness have created “dangerous and harmful conditions.”

Because the facility is understaffed, employees there worked more than 5,400 hours of overtime during the first nine months of the year. This led to burnout, turnover and lack of coordination and consistency in how the children held there were treated. As a result, both staff and detainees are put at risk of violence and injury.

This is nearly identical to the findings in a report on conditions at Riverview. The problems there were improved when the Department of Health and Human Services got serious about filling staff vacancies.

The same kind of commitment is needed now to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system.

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