The Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland has struggled to handle its large population of young inmates with serious mental illness.

To truly solve any problem, we must address the cause, not just the symptoms. Calls to close the Long Creek Youth Development Center and efforts to prevent a new level of secure psychiatric care within the children’s behavioral health system focus effort on the symptoms, not solutions. Real change will come only when we make a collective commitment to our children to build a comprehensive social service system driven by the best interest of children rather than allowing ideological stances to produce nothing more than political divides.

Maine’s child poverty rate in 2017 was 16.6 percent — 24th in the nation and the highest rate in New England. Maine’s childhood trauma rates are also above the national average. Waitlists for home and community services far surpass six months for approved families.

Forty-six percent of middle school students reported being bullied at school and 16.1 percent reported that they had “seriously thought about” killing themselves according to the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. Maine families struggle to provide a bright future for their children with 86 percent of adolescents leaving high school with a diploma but less than 29 percent completing college. And most profoundly, we lose a Mainer to suicide every 1.6 days with many more adolescents attempting to end their own lives.

Mainers are struggling with less access to health care, food stamps, and training to increase earnings beyond minimum wage. Reduced access to our mental health system has left hundreds of parents unable to secure the mental health care they need to remain the loving and stable parents they are capable of being.

Hospital rooms are flooded with people waiting days, and sometimes weeks, for access to psychiatric hospitalization. Law enforcement officers are forced to respond to mental health calls more appropriate for a social worker than an officer of the law. Across the state, there is simply not adequate ability to access community-based mental health services. In Portland in 2017 there were half the number of state-funded mental health crisis workers as there were in 2014. On any given day, a jail that works hard to serve those with mental illness, like Penobscot County, can have 77 percent of its inmates on psychotropic medication.

Every institution needs to be held accountable for the services it provides; however, Long Creek is not the cause of our challenge in Maine — it is just the symptom of child welfare and mental health system failures.

That’s why calls to close Long Creek are sensationalistic. The reality is that there are some violent kids who are a threat to the safety of our communities. Maine needs at most, a 40-bed facility to serve as a detention and commitment program for juvenile-justice involved youth.

From child welfare to early behavioral health interventions: we need evidence-based approaches that serve the needs of children. We are all heartbroken over the vivid stories of brutal deaths, but we should also be outraged that we are collectively allowing these failures to continue.

Maine does not have a system of care for children and their families needing to access mental health services and supports. Developing one driven by research and the perspective of those with lived-experience needs to be a priority of the next administration.

The reason for allowing a locked youth facility is not to support an institution that would be tantamount to a mini-jail. Instead, Maine needs small residential settings with with staff with the expertise to serve specific populations. Girls who have significant histories of childhood sexual abuse or have been a victim of trafficking should not be placed at Long Creek. They are there today because it is the only place we have as a state to keep them safe. Boys with autism or intellectual disabilities should not be served at Long Creek rather there should be a mental health residential placement that can ensure they are kept safe.

The vision and regulations for this new level of care — not the existence of the new level of care — should be the debate. Our system desperately needs specialized, high-level mental health care to prevent the criminalization of mental illness, and the youth in Long Creek deserve nothing less.

There are most certainly significant red flags with the Department of Health and Human Services proposal for these facilities including that there is no real vision or identified target populations. Even more alarming is the inclusion in the proposed regulations of chemical restraint (unethical for psychiatrists) and mechanical restraints (cruel and unusual punishment to most).

Real change will happen only as a result of a commitment to children from our next governor and a truly dynamic vision from within the next group of leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Jenna Mehnert is executive director of NAMI Maine.

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