The Department of Health and Human Services’ move to shift adolescent offenders out of residential facilities and into foster homes or to live with relatives may benefit most of the youths served and save money – but it has also contributed to a spike in juveniles being held temporarily at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

The change in DHHS policy has led several residential facilities for at-risk youth to close.

That has left judges with few alternatives when trying to place a teenager who is awaiting a decision on a court case. They don’t want to send him or her back to the environment that produced the behavior in the first place, but often the only alternative is the youth center.

“Most of the kids who are detained do not need to be detained. They need a safe, supervised place to be,” said Ned Chester, an attorney who represents adolescents.

The frustration of judges, lawyers and child welfare advocates helped prompt Chief Justice Leigh Saufley to pull together the Juvenile Justice Task Force.

The group hopes to create community systems that can accommodate kids who break the law but are not serious offenders and shouldn’t be incarcerated.

The number of juveniles committed to Long Creek also has risen – from 45 in 2005 to 78 in 2008 – before the state started shifting some of those students to Mountain View Youth Development Center in Charleston. Chester said the reason is that there are few options to incarceration.

The numbers threatened to exceed the southern Maine facility’s capacity, so many juveniles whose cases had been decided were shifted to Charleston. The only committed students still in Long Creek are those from York and Cumberland counties.

The drawback is those juveniles shifted to Charleston are now much farther from relatives and other support networks.

Long Creek currently houses 120 adolescents, 30 of whom are awaiting a disposition of their court cases. There are 63 in Mountain View, 17 of whom are there pending a decision.

Youths detained pending a decision typically spend about 10 days in the facility, according to the Department of Corrections.

“Any time you pull a young person out of their community, out of their support system and bring them into an institution, you make it more difficult to reintegrate,” said Denise Lord, associate commissioner for the Department of Corrections.

“There are some kids for whom detention is probably the appropriate choice. But if it’s not a conscious decision, just an easy or convenient or unthinking routine, is that in the best interest of that young person and the best use of public dollars?”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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