VASSALBORO — The mother of the 16-year-old transgender boy who killed himself in October while detained at the Long Creek Youth Development Center said she begged authorities there to give her son mental health treatment, but she was repeatedly rebuffed for weeks because he was being held only temporarily.

Michelle Knowles, 48, of North Vassalboro, said her son, whose birth name was Maisie Knowles but who went by Charles after he began to transition, had a long and well-documented history of mental illness.

Knowles said she called Long Creek officials half a dozen times to urge them to act, seeking someone to listen to her concerns that her son would try to harm himself.

He had been placed on and off suicide watch several times at Long Creek, but only recently was being seen regularly by a psychiatrist, after an outside physician who had previously cared for the teenager intervened. Knowles said she only found traction once the second doctor who had a prior clinical relationship with the teen got involved.

Charles Knowles

Charles Knowles Family photo courtesy Michelle Knowles

By then, Knowles said, Charles already had tried to commit suicide at least three times. In their last conversation before he did take his life, Charles told his mom that he recently had been given back his bed sheets. The next day, he used one of those sheets to hang himself. He died in a Portland hospital several days later after being taken off life support, his mother said.

“Even though the child didn’t want to be alive, it was our job (to keep him alive) and I gave it to other people,” Knowles said Tuesday during an emotional two-hour interview at her home. “They said they would keep him safe. And Maisie thought they would keep him safe.”

It is still unclear to Knowles whether her son was taken off suicide watch immediately before his death; officials from Long Creek have not given her a straight answer, she said. An investigation is underway by the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which is standard when anyone dies in state custody.

“They couldn’t attend to his mental health because he was a detainee and not an inmate. And that’s important. He was languishing,” Knowles said. “I demanded that he get clinical assistance. They were just going to begin some. That’s when they called up to congratulate themselves on how great Maisie was doing for the past 12 hours. I said, ‘yeah, you gotta look out.'”

The next day, Charles had hanged himself.

Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick declined Monday to answer any questions regarding the death. He also did not respond to a list of 21 questions sent by the Portland Press Herald to his office, including general questions about the handling of transgender people in the state’s custody at Long Creek or any other state-run prison or facility.

The questions included how the Long Creek staff oversees people who are on suicide watch, how frequently youths on suicide watch are left alone and for how long, and how many transgender youths are now at Long Creek, which can house a maximum of 163 juvenile offenders.

TEMPORARY STATUS IMPEDED TREATMENT

Knowles’ death, the first in decades at the juvenile detention center, raises questions about whether Long Creek is capable of fulfilling its most essential task – keeping the children in its care safe from harm while they are rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

Knowles was being held there temporarily after he set his house on fire in August, and would have been due in court Tuesday, court records show.

That means he was not afforded the same access to mental health treatment as children who are committed to the facility by the courts, Michelle Knowles said.

For her son, detention at Long Creek was the result of years of difficulty and misbehavior that can be traced back to a myriad of mental health diagnoses, she said. On top of those challenges, it was apparent from an early age that Maisie Knowles knew she wanted to be a boy, first articulating the deep gender conflict that would define her life as a 3-year-old. Instead of asking Santa Claus for dolls, Maisie asked for boys’ toys and clothes.

Undated family photo of Michelle Knowles and Maisie Knowles before he transitioned.

Undated family photo of Michelle Knowles and Maisie Knowles before he transitioned.

Michelle Knowles lamented that note and has kept it for years, she said.

As a small child, Knowles said, her son was fearless, trying everything put in front of him. He was as comfortable playing in the woods as he was lying with his father, Douglas, while he worked under his truck in mud-caked boots while his son’s shoes were adorned with sparkles.

Their home in the woods at the end of a long dirt road was both a refuge and a playground. Neighbor kids played at their home, scrambling up and down from a two-story tree house that towers over the modest mobile home.

In their front yard, a derelict roadside shack with “Maisie’s Herbs” scrawled in pink paint hints at happier times, before Knowles and her husband amicably parted ways.

NORMAL PERIODS, THEN SUDDEN DARKNESS

Mental illness began to creep in around age 9, Michelle Knowles said. Her son began to self-mutilate, picking at the skin on his thumbs, at first with his fingernails, then with safety pins.

Knowles said her son became anxious when she left the house, and would harm himself more when she was away. When the self-harm progressed to cutting, Knowles said, she immediately sought professional help.

“I swear to God, Maisie has always had a team around her,” Knowles said. “And that’s what breaks my heart. Because the team is at a loss.”

Together, they went through round after round of therapists, doctors, evaluations and visits to crisis centers, Knowles said. Her child was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, on top of the deep pain caused by the shifting sense of gender.

Doctors told Knowles early on that her child would be prone to suicidal thoughts and actions. She learned with experience that periods of relative calm and apparent progress with doctors would suddenly give way like a trap door that opened into free fall.

“I told them (at Long Creek), ‘Please be careful, you can’t trust this child,’ ” Knowles said. “As soon as you trust him, the other shoe drops.”

Despite the gantlet of mental health problems, Maisie began to own her gender identity as a teenager, adopted the name Charles and began using male pronouns.

At school, he cultivated a close, loyal group of friends. He was easy to love, Knowles said.

To Knowles, rejecting her son’s gender identity was never an option.

“I always said I’d rather have a happy trans kid than a sad dead one,” she said. “You don’t always get what you want.”