Credit: George Danby

Children do not belong in jails. Being in jail is a traumatizing experience for a child and, to be clear, Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland is a jail. According to the 2017 report by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy:

“Long Creek houses many youth with profound and complex mental health problems, youth whom the facility is neither designed for nor staffed to manage. Staff and administrators at Long Creek were the first to admit that the facility is not the right place for many of the youth in its care. Long Creek was designed as a secure facility for the small number of justice-involved youth in Maine who require that level of restriction because of their likelihood of committing violent offenses.”

Long Creek has become a place to house children who are primarily a low risk to the community and who have high mental health needs. Half of all the children in Long Creek have been, at one point in their life, hospitalized for mental health problems. Courts frequently place children in Long Creek not primarily because of the offense the child has committed but because the child has no place else to go.

How is it that jail has become where we put children who need a place to live and mental health services? We need a therapeutic approach to youth in the juvenile justice system in Maine.

In Missouri, the juvenile justice system has switched away from a correctional approach for juveniles that places them in large detention centers to small non-institutional facilities close to home. These regionally placed facilities, designed to house 10 to 12 juveniles, use a therapeutic — and not punitive — approach to effectively rehabilitate, treat and educate children.

The Missouri model has proven to be much more effective and safer for the community and the children who come into the system than places like Maine that rely on “deep-end” detention centers such as Long Creek. The Missouri Youth Services Institute reports that only 7 percent of youth returned to juvenile or adult justice systems three years after being discharged from these regional facilities. This is because the children there receive the mental health treatment they need and the support to address childhood trauma.

Childhood trauma, also known as adverse childhood experiences, has proven to be the basis of most juvenile criminal conduct. In jail, children are often retraumatized by practices such as routine strip searches, which often occur after family visits. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy in its Long Creek report says that the practice of strip searching children is “an unnecessarily traumatic and intrusive practice, particularly among a population with high rates of prior physical and sexual abuse.”

Maine should adopt the Missouri model and replace Long Creek with smaller, regional facilities for eight to 12 youth with highly trained staff. Right now, we are paying $250,000 per year to keep a child in Long Creek. Imagine the services the state could provide to a child for that much money.

One of the extraordinary results of the Missouri model is that staff in the former system were retrained — not replaced — to work under the new system. Staff learned the therapeutic model and have witnessed great results. Staff report how excited they are to be able to have such a positive influence in these children’s lives, develop positive relationships with them and see lives change for the better. They talk about the importance of dealing with childhood trauma and how even the most challenging kids responded well in these settings.

Of course, there will remain a need to place youth who present a high public safety risk in very secure settings. However, these sites should also be a small group setting with staff who are highly trained to work with that population, and these sites should likewise have a therapeutic focus. Keep in mind that all of these children at some point are going to be released back into the community.

Long Creek needs to be closed. We have the money. We have the knowledge. Let’s put this all to use to make a better future for these children and to make our communities safer for all of us.

Seth Levy is a trial attorney in Maine who represents youth in the juvenile justice system. He is also a criminal defense attorney, the defense counsel member of the Co-Occurring Disorders and Veterans Court, and recently ran for Cumberland County district attorney in the June 12 primary.

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