The top administrator of the state’s only youth correctional facility has been put on administrative leave pending an investigation. The action comes six months after the facility’s first suicide in decades and three weeks after an escape by three residents ended in a violent car crash.

Jeffrey D. Merrill II, administrator of the Long Creek Youth Development Center, was put on leave Wednesday, said Joseph Fitzpatrick, commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

“I can tell you that it’s an ongoing investigation, and I’m not able to respond or make any comments about it,” Fitzpatrick said. He said the corrections staff is leading the inquiry.

Colin O’Neill, the associate commissioner of corrections, has assumed day-to-day responsibilities at Long Creek, a 180-bed facility in South Portland.

Merrill, who was appointed to the post in 2013, could not be reached for comment. He served previously as acting superintendent at the facility, and has roughly 28 years of experience with the Department of Corrections, having worked at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham before his appointment to Long Creek. State records show Merrill was paid $91,126 last year. Long Creek has a staff of about 169 and now houses about 80 youths at a cost of roughly $15.2 million annually.

Those who work with Long Creek residents are waiting to see what develops at the institution.

“Whenever you have a change in leadership, it’s an opportunity to go in a different direction. I’m just not sure what direction Long Creek will go,” said Christopher Northrop, a clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law and director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic.

“The way I view it, and the way others view it, there are real problems with disconnecting kids from communities for a long period of time. As that disconnection continues to exist, and as the lengths of stay (at Long Creek) continue to grow, the reintegration becomes more and more difficult,” he said.

News of Merrill’s leave comes after a tumultuous period for the facility. Charles Maisie Knowles, a transgender boy who was housed in the girl’s unit, died Nov. 1, 2016, after hanging himself three days earlier. It was the first death in decades at Long Creek.

Knowles had been on and off suicide watch in the days leading up to his death.

The Attorney General’s Office, which by statute reviews any death that occurs in state custody, found Knowles’ death not to be suspicious.

Then earlier this year in a presentation to the Legislature, a child advocate who leads the Long Creek Board of Visitors, an independent group established in statute to review practices at the facility, sounded the alarm in her annual report over a concerning number of residents who have acute mental health problems who require constant supervision and monitoring by staff, placing growing strain on staff.

“These vulnerable, acute-level youth residents are merely being managed for safety and not specifically treated for their acute-level needs,” wrote Tonya DiMillo, the board’s chair. “They do not receive the depth of mental health interventions and medical treatment that they require, potentially causing a further increase of psychological risks. (Long Creek’s staff) is doing the best they can with the tools they have, but they are being asked to do things they are not trained for and/or in the scope of their programming.”

The report seemed to validate the claims of Charles Maisie Knowles’ mother, who said she pleaded with authorities at the facility to give her child more therapy and treatment.

Michelle Knowles said her child already had attempted suicide multiple times while at Long Creek, but that deeper, more comprehensive treatment was not available because Charles was a temporary detainee and not a full-time resident committed there by the courts.

The Department of Corrections has rebuffed that claim and said previously that every resident, whether committed or detained, undergoes a 30-day assessment following their arrival that concludes with a treatment plan, and that every resident has access to the same services.

There have been other incidents at the detention facility, as well.

In her report, DiMillo cited a second attempt at suicide by another resident following Knowles’ death.

Then this month, three Long Creek residents on a weekend hiking retreat in the Carrabassett Valley fled from their group and stole a car. The incident ended in a brief police chase in South Portland, where police ran the vehicle off the road, causing it to flip over and roll.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

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