The Press Herald is right that Maine’s only juvenile detention center isn’t working (“Our View: Time for Maine to close state’s only youth prison,” March 27). Amid several suicide attempts, including one that claimed the life of a 16-year-old transgender boy in October, the recent escape of three young people and an ongoing investigation that led to the resignation this week of Long Creek Youth Development Center’s chief administrator, it’s time to take a closer look at how Maine cares for and treats at-risk youth.

But that look must go beyond the Department of Corrections, which is tasked with the care of children who have been involved in criminal activity. We must instead acknowledge the system failures that have gotten us here, starting with the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for the care of young MaineCare recipients in need of mental health treatment.

Almost all of the children at Long Creek qualify for MaineCare. In 2016, 67 of the 79 children housed at Long Creek had three or more mental health diagnoses. Nearly one-quarter had substance use disorders. And 30 percent of children at Long Creek were sent there from a residential facility regulated by the DHHS. The mental health care crisis at Long Creek starts with the transfer of children out of DHHS care and into DOC custody. To fix the problems at Long Creek, we must start with the DHHS.

Earlier this month, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick testified before the Maine Legislature that many of the kids at Long Creek belong in mental health treatment – not in prison. But, Fitzpatrick testified, there are not enough community mental health resources in Maine to help these children dealing with acute mental illness, so they end up behind bars instead.

And once they have served their sentences at Long Creek, children who would otherwise be released often languish inside because there are long waiting lists for community placements.

Maine law actually allows the DOC to petition a judge to release a child from Long Creek before she has served her time, and into a mental health treatment program provided by the DHHS, if the Corrections Department feels this would better meet the child’s needs. Yet despite Commissioner Fitzpatrick’s testimony that these children need treatment, not jail, this alternative is rarely used because the DHHS programs simply don’t exist.

Despite this major shortfall in needed programs, a report out last week from the Maine Center for Economic Policy revealed that in 2016, the DHHS failed to spend $800,000 in federal funds available to help adolescents struggling with substance use disorders. That same year, the DHHS abruptly canceled a program that provided coaching and care coordination, psychiatric treatment and peer-to-peer mentoring to young adults with or at risk of developing a mental health diagnosis, forfeiting an additional $3 million in available federal funds. None of this money required state matching funds, yet Maine left it on the table rather than use it to help children in desperate need of care.

According to the DHHS website, the department’s stated goals include protecting and enhancing the health and well-being of Maine people, and protecting and caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. Yet at every step of the way, the department seems unwilling to protect those who need it most – at-risk children.

The LePage administration and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew insist that fiscal responsibility and conservative stewardship of the state’s money must come first. Yet it costs the state $200,000 a year to incarcerate a child at Long Creek. Surely that money could be better used keeping kids in their own communities, receiving treatment rather than languishing behind bars.

It is up to the DHHS to ensure that children covered by MaineCare get the appropriate testing and treatment for mental and behavioral health problems, as federal law requires. It is up to the DHHS to ensure its contracts with residential treatment providers require better care for children, so that those in DHHS care do not end up behind bars.

When any government agency fails so completely at its stated goals, it is time for accountability. We can’t just focus on what happens to children once they’re incarcerated. Instead, we must insist that the DHHS do its job before it gets to that point, and help the most vulnerable children in the state grow into thriving adults.