Too dangerous for learning. Too chaotic for therapy. Too punitive for rehabilitation. Too broke to fix.

Far too often, Long Creek Youth Development Center accomplishes the opposite of what it was created to do, and no amount of training, new funding or additional staffing will change that. Despite best efforts and intentions, the state’s only youth detention facility has failed as an institution, and it’s time to shut it down.

That shouldn’t be in question following the release of a report that confirmed what youth, parents and advocates have been saying for years – Long Creek is neither designed nor staffed to meet the needs of the teens who are sent there. Rather than steering youth toward lives as productive adults, the South Portland facility is setting them up for a life of underachievement and incarceration.

‘EXACT OPPOSITE RESULT’

The report, commissioned by the state’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group and conducted by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, says Long Creek has many “energetic and highly motivated leaders,” as well as staff and supervisors who “demonstrate high levels of skill and professionalism.”

Still, the relatively low pay and difficult population lead to employee turnover, which means Long Creek must rely on inexperienced staff members, excessive overtime and inconsistent schedules.

“This creates an atmosphere of unpredictability and randomness – exactly the opposite of what you would want to see in a rehabilitative setting,” the report said.

The lack of consistency and structure from the staff, as well as the inability of some staff members to handle the challenges presented by the youth, create an unsafe and unsettling atmosphere, not exactly conducive to therapy and education.

The 18 resident-on-resident attacks that Long Creek averages each month show why residents don’t feel safe there, and the concerning number of suicide attempts and self-harming gestures are a clear sign that are not getting the support they need.

What’s more, the youth who act out in response to this environment are often charged criminally, pushing them deeper into the justice system. “This practice makes it more likely that youth will graduate to the adult corrections system in Maine, the exact opposite result of what Long Creek is intended to achieve,” the report said.

And retraining staff or adding programs won’t make a difference – Long Creek, or any detention facility, is just not made for this work.

ROAD TO NOWHERE

Long Creek was built as a place for violent youth, yet most of the teens incarcerated now are there because of untreated mental health needs. According to a state Department of Corrections report, more than 75 percent of the youth at Long Creek had previously received mental health outpatient services, and 80 percent had received family and community-based mental health services. About half had required inpatient hospitalization for mental health problems.

Less than a quarter, however, had one or more felony adjudications at the time they were sent to Long Creek.

For the most part, these are not violent, dangerous teens who need to be separated from society, but troubled youth who need structure, consistency and care. They are sent to Long Creek not because they are irredeemable or vicious, but because they face difficult challenges that their parents and schools were not prepared to handle. Once there, they are dropped into an environment that exacerbates and criminalizes their problems rather than solves them.

CLOSE LONG CREEK

It’s time to put an end to that road to nowhere. Maine is almost there anyway, having reduced the number of juvenile prisoners from more than 300 in 1997 to around 80 today by keeping kids out of the court system, and in community-based programs, whenever possible. Closing Long Creek is a natural extension of that work.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. The deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals decades ago solved some problems but created many others. To avoid a repeat, Maine must improve and expand its community-based programs.

The $15 million the state spends each year on Long Creek, or about $250,000 per youth, is a good start. It would be better to spend it in a way that could help Maine kids than continue to throw it at an institution that is clearly not working.