The Maine Department of Corrections will turn over records of suicide attempts at Long Creek Youth Development Center to an advocacy group for people with disabilities.

Disability Rights Maine filed a lawsuit last year in U.S. District Court in Bangor to get access to those records. The state’s only juvenile detention center has been the focus of calls for reform or closure in recent years, and Disability Rights Maine was investigating a slew of complaints about neglect and suicide attempts. The lawsuit alleged that the department was violating federal law by withholding related records and obstructing that investigation. 

The parties have agreed that the state will provide the records in question to Disability Rights Maine when the organization has a signed release from a parent, guardian or the former resident if that person is over 18 years old. A judge approved a consent judgment that outlined those terms and closed the case Tuesday.

“We’re disappointed that we had to litigate in order to get this outcome, but we are satisfied with the outcome, and we do think that this vindicates our important work and certainly our federal access authority,” said Jeffrey Skakalski, a staff attorney in the Augusta office of Disability Rights Maine.

Commissioner Randall Liberty of the Department of Corrections said he was also pleased with the agreement.

“Initially we were seeking clarification on what we could legally release, and we had some disagreements on that,” he said. “What this judgment does is give us clarity on what we can release and when we can release it.”

Asked about the investigation into suicide attempts, Liberty said he will be transparent with Disability Rights Maine. He also noted that his department is convening a working group to reconsider Maine’s juvenile justice system and its options for incarcerating minors.

“It’s my intent to be transparent and provide them with all the information that we have available so they can fact find,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Maine Attorney General’s Office, which represented the department, said in an email that the judgment speaks for itself.

An independent review in 2017 found that Long Creek is chronically understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the serious mental health needs of young residents. That report followed the 2016 suicide of a transgender teenager, Charles Maisie Knowles — the first suicide at the South Portland facility in decades.

The state has designated Disability Rights Maine as the protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities, including developmental disabilities and mental illness. In the lawsuit, the group argued that role allows it to access certain records under federal law.

From March to July of last year, Disability Rights Maine received complaints from six individuals “alleging serious neglect in the Long Creek youth facility,” according to the lawsuit. Five complaints during that time reported that a youth in detention had attempted suicide. As a result, the group opened its investigation and wrote a letter to Long Creek Superintendent Caroline Raymond. That letter included a request for multiple documents, including the names of residents who had attempted suicide and information about suicide prevention.

The lawsuit described a back-and-forth correspondence that ensued over weeks between the Maine Attorney General’s Office and Disability Rights Maine. The state denied the request for information without citing any reason to do so under the law. Disability Rights Maine provided a signed authorization from six individuals or their guardians, giving the group access to their records.

The lawsuit did not specifically say what services are not available to residents at Long Creek. It gave some examples of records that were not provided to Disability Rights Maine, such as daily behavior cards for all six individuals. In October, the state allowed the group to review some of the requested records but continued to withhold others. In November, the group filed the lawsuit.

“Several complainants alleged that Long Creek youth were not receiving the behavioral supports and interventions they required and were at risk of self-harm and suicide, placing the youth, residents and others at risk of injury or death,” the lawsuit stated. “DRM’s monitoring of Long Creek found evidence of a facility-wide failure to provide youth with disabilities with programs and services that are required by law. DRM has not been able to fully investigate these complaints due to an inability to access necessary records.”

The parties engaged in settlement discussions, and Skakalaski said the state has been more willing to work with Disability Rights Maine. The group has received some records but anticipates more, and the investigation that was delayed by the legal battle will now continue. Disability Rights Maine does not need signed authorization in all records requests, but agreed to get those permissions as part of the settlement in this case, he said.

The state agreed to try to get that authorization from a parent or guardian when a resident is admitted to Long Creek, and when it is denied, the department will share contact information for the parent or guardian with Disability Rights Maine. The consent judgment also outlines the timeframe for the state to provide records upon request – three business days – and limited reasons for denial.

Skakalaski said filing a lawsuit was a last resort, but it was one the group was willing to pursue.

“I do think that this should put other facilities like Long Creek and other correctional facilities on notice that we have the authority to access records and information related to the treatment of individuals with disabilities,” Skakalaski said.

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