Long Creek Youth Development Center on Westbrook Street in South Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Advocates have argued for a long time that Maine fails to provide adequate community behavioral health services for our children, too often housing them in institutions instead.  Multiple reports have indicated the same, while detailing persistent problems at the state’s only youth detention center.

Another weighty voice has joined this chorus emphasizing the way Maine is failing some of its most vulnerable young people: The U.S. Department of Justice.

Following a complaint from Disability Rights Maine, the DOJ investigated Maine’s system of care for kids with behavioral health needs. The department found that Maine is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and outlined those findings in a June 22 letter to Maine Gov. Janet Mills and Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey.

“We have determined that Maine is violating the ADA by failing to provide behavioral health services to children in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division wrote. “Instead, the State unnecessarily relies on segregated settings such as psychiatric hospitals and residential treatment facilities to provide these services. As a result of these violations, children are separated from their families and communities.”

As reported by the BDN’s Rosemary Lausier, the DOJ identified barriers to these services such as lengthy waitlists, an insufficient provider network, inadequate crisis services and a lack of support for foster care parents.

The department also suggested remedial actions such as improving access to existing services, addressing waitlists, providing crisis services rather than law enforcement responses, making investments to expand and maintain the pool of behavioral health providers, and enacting a policy to prevent providers from refusing to serve children eligible for community-based behavioral health services.

“Hopefully today is the day that Maine begins to turn away from expensive and ineffective institutional solutions and toward a system that supports youth in their homes and communities,” Atlee Reilly, the legal director for Disability Rights Maine, said in response to the DOJ findings. We strongly agree.

As the DOJ findings acknowledge, the state has taken some steps to improve its system for community-based behavioral health services. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services announced on June 24 that it is starting to distribute over $15 million for behavioral health providers that the Legislature approved on a bipartisan basis earlier this year.

But what does it say about state performance on this issue when an improved situation is still in violation of the ADA?

While the DOJ did not suggest it as one of the potential remedies, we continue to believe that closing the Long Creek Youth Development Center is part of this complicated puzzle. As the DOJ findings discuss, “Maine is using Long Creek as a de facto children’s psychiatric facility instead of providing more integrated treatment options.”

Long Creek has become a catch-all that shoulders the failure to provide adequate community-based services. It’s time to make the needed investments and also abandon this failed catch-all that has enabled the status quo to continue. Both can and should happen together.

The DOJ press release that announced its findings also included a statement from Darcie McElwee, the U.S. District Attorney for the District of Maine.

“Access to local community-based services for children with mental health and/or developmental disabilities is a critical need for families across Maine,” McElwee said. “I hope that the violations identified by the Justice Department can be remedied so that these children and their families are able to obtain quality services in their own communities.”

That hope must become an expectation across the state. The current situation is unacceptable. If this wasn’t already clear to Maine leaders, the Department of Justice findings should leave no doubt that things must change.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...