As the first director of children’s mental health services in what was then the Maine Department of Mental Health and Corrections, I had the responsibility of closing the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in the early 1970s. Located in the middle of the then-Pineland Hospital and Training Center (one of two state institutions for the people once called “feeble-minded” and “retarded”), almost 100 children lived within its stone walls. But they languished, oversight of their care was often sparse and conditions were grim.

Closing the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital was a formidable challenge. An assessment of each child revealed that many were sent there because resources in their home communities – primarily mental health and educational support – were lacking and an integrated approach to delivery was not firmly in place. The Children’s Psychiatric Hospital was the only place for them to go to get the support they needed.

But closing it unveiled the same problems that brought children there in the first place. Those able to leave could not, as community support services were still not in place for them and their families. Yes, it was the early days of community mental health centers and special education, services were minimal and not well-integrated, but in many rural parts of the state, this is still the case.

If Long Creek Youth Development Center is to be closed, as you call for in a recent editorial (Our View, Jan. 4), it must be because it is in the best interests of the kids and because the system of community support is secure and ready to address these kids’ complex needs.

Those at the decision-making table – community mental health center personnel, child mental health specialists, educators, parents, lawmakers, state agency administrators – must ensure that community services are available and well-funded lest the outcomes for the children be even worse than when they were inside the institution’s walls.