Jeffrey D. Merrill II, administrator of the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, resigned over the weekend, Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick said Monday.

Merrill had been placed on administrative leave last Wednesday, pending an investigation. His departure comes five months after the first suicide in decades at the youth correctional facility and three weeks after an escape by three residents that ended in a car crash.

Fitzpatrick declined to discuss the investigation that had begun into the facility, which comes at a critical time for Long Creek. A recent spike in the number of youths with acute mental health problems has stretched the abilities of staff at the locked, 160-bed campus. Long Creek has a staff of about 169 and now houses about 80 inmates at a cost of roughly $15.2 million annually.

Until a permanent successor is found, Colin O’Neill, associate commissioner of corrections, will continue day-to-day leadership at Long Creek.

“The most important priority right now is the kids,” Fitzpatrick said. “There will be no break in programming, there will be no break in mental health services or support. What I’m going to turn my efforts towards is recruiting a strong leader that will continue the program in the right direction.”

Two phone numbers listed for Merrill were not working Monday afternoon, and he could not be reached for comment.

Merrill was appointed to the post in 2013 and had previously served as acting superintendent at Long Creek. He has nearly 30 years of correctional experience in Maine

Fitzpatrick said he plans to look internally in Maine for a permanent replacement for Merrill before searching outside the state.

Whoever is selected, the next leader at Long Creek will inherit a facility with persistent challenges.

More and more, Long Creek residents show acute mental health problems that are beyond the scope of what the facility’s staff members are trained to handle every day, Fitzpatrick said.

The demand for intensive services has ramped up within the last two years, he said, and exasperated the Long Creek staff, leading to low morale and a difficult work environment.

“They signed up being correctional staff, but they’re not mental health professionals,” Fitzpatrick said. “You can’t expect people to not become demoralized and exhausted when they feel like they’re not getting enough help. My job is to keep ringing that alarm bell.”

According to a snapshot report by the Department of Corrections that examined case histories of all 79 residents at Long Creek as of June 2016, nearly a third – 29.5 percent – arrived at Long Creek from a residential treatment facility. Roughly 85 percent arrived at the facility with three or more mental health diagnoses.

“If you’ve got 30 percent of the population coming out of residential care, the obvious question to be asked is what’s going on in that residential care situation that’s not meeting the needs of these kids?” Fitzpatrick said. “Until we can identify where the deficiencies are in the system, I don’t think we can know where to put our resources. We have to do our homework and understand what it is that’s failing these kids.”

In acknowledging the problems, Fitzpatrick’s comments mirrored the conclusions of an annual review by an outside watchdog group, the Long Creek Board of Visitors, who highlighted the mental health challenges in a brief but assertive report that predicted another serious incident would occur unless changes are made.

“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 chairwoman. “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.”

A tragic example of those mental health needs came in November, when 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. A review by the Maine attorney general found the death was not suspicious.

Knowles’ mother said in a previous interview that she tried to raise the alarm with Long Creek staff about her child’s mental health problems, but she found little traction. The Department of Corrections has disputed that claim.

Knowles had been on and off suicide watch several times, and had a long and well-documented history of mental illness.

Fitzpatrick said his staff is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to search for ways to improve community mental health resources so that children get the care they need before they are sent by a judge to Long Creek.