Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, last week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine corrections officials told lawmakers Wednesday that they had to temporarily close two residential programs for juveniles last year that were opened as alternatives for teens who might otherwise be held at the state’s lone youth prison.

That news comes after juvenile defense attorneys raised concerns last week that they weren’t getting enough time with their clients at Long Creek Youth Development Center because of the same issue – staffing.

The Maine Department of Corrections has been tasked in recent years with prioritizing diversion programs for justice-involved youth. However, in a presentation to lawmakers Wednesday, the department said it had two alternative programs to South Portland’s Long Creek up and running early last year but didn’t have enough workers to staff the sites. Those closures had not been publicly disclosed previously.

The department said Wednesday that it has 36 vacancies out of the more than 80 security positions that deal directly with Long Creek residents.

Officials talked some about improved advertising of open positions, new certifications offered to new hires and focusing more attention on staff well being. But the shifts are long, ranging anywhere from 12 to 16 hours at a time, and they’re often performed back to back, said Christine Thibeault, the associate commissioner of juvenile services.

“Things are challenging even under the best of circumstances,” she said.


The department has had success with community-based diversion programs that keep teens out of Long Creek in the first place, Thibeault said. It invested almost $4.3 million last year in diversion programs around the state, offering community service, behavioral health care and substance use treatment to juveniles.

Long Creek’s daily population remains low, even as other states are reporting pre-pandemic numbers of detained and committed juveniles. In 2023, anywhere from 16 to 39 residents were housed there on a daily basis, compared to roughly 53 on average in 2019.

Maine’s juvenile code was revised in 2021 to remove a provision that ordered Long Creek to care for young people simply because they couldn’t access care in their own communities. Thibeault said the only youths currently detained at Long Creek are those who “present an immediate risk to themselves” or who “present a risk to someone else.”

But it’s also a more challenging population that requires more staff, Thibeault said. The average length of stay for Long Creek teens has increased from roughly four days on average in 2019 to more than a month last year. Many residents require constant surveillance and one-on-one observation by staff, she said, because there’s a risk they’ll harm themselves.

The one-on-one staffing requirement “really waters down” the department’s ability to staff other residential programs, Thibeault said.


The corrections department had to temporarily cease operations at a female residential program in South Portland and a male program in Auburn in March 2023. The department said it will reopen both sites when it has enough staff to do so.

The department opened ACER for girls in a building neighboring Long Creek in December 2022. The facility only housed three girls at a time, but they were returned to Long Creek in March 2023, when one girl’s behavioral health needs were so severe she required a more secure unit. The department didn’t have enough staff for two locations.

Unity Place in Auburn began accepting boys in September 2022. The facility was supposed to be staffed by Day One, a contracted provider of substance use and mental health treatment. Unity Place housed eight residents before it closed in March 2023 after Day One wasn’t able to hire enough staff to meet the needs of the residents, the department said, after $1.3 million had been invested in the site.

“It’s not easy,” Thibeault said Wednesday. “This is a challenging population to work with.”

Commissioner Randall Liberty said Long Creek already has the infrastructure for medical and mental health care that would be expensive to replicate in other facilities. The facility has a physician, a psychiatrist, dental care, a nurse available 24/7 and mental health professionals, he said.

“Replicating that group of services for a program in central Maine that might serve six youth is enormously expensive, if we could do it at all,” Liberty said.


Long Creek has struggled with staffing for years, a point of concern that’s been identified in numerous reviews of the state’s juvenile justice system.

In 2021, the Center for Children’s Law and Policy found that periods of unrest and property damage by residents were due in part to “chronic staffing shortages” and a “counterproductive” tendency to over-punish young residents.

In 2017, the center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on juvenile justice reform, found that criminally charging youth only deepens their involvement in the system when their behaviors are usually the result of “unmet mental health need or disability.”


The center’s work came up at the committee hearing Wednesday. Jill Ward, who served on a statewide task force for juvenile justice reform, said the state should continue to avoid institutionalizing and incarcerating young people who enter the criminal justice system.

That can include empowering law enforcement agencies not to send young people to jail or Long Creek. It can include increasing diversion programs in the community and limiting the length of time a young person spends at Long Creek.

Ward said Maine still lacks an entity that could offer independent oversight of residents at Long Creek, like an ombudsman or a regulatory council. She said Maine is one of only eight states where the juvenile justice program is housed under an adult correction agency.

Ward said it might be more effective if the juvenile justice program was in a department more aligned with social services than incarceration.

“If we want to just put the kids in a place, we’re doing that,” Ward said. “If we want better outcomes for the kids … we need a different model that doesn’t try to fix all that in a place that’s trauma-inducing, itself.”

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