Maine’s top judge called Tuesday for more mental health services and recovery centers for children and youth in crisis.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley used her State of the Judiciary address to push for more safe housing, trained advocates, and mental health and addiction recovery services for all Mainers, particularly young people. Before Maine expands specialty courts to tackle the “epidemic of addiction and mental health crises,” she said, the state must fund such community-based services.

“There has been an acknowledgement for quite some time that we do not have sufficient placement facilities for youth who can’t go home,” Saufley told reporters. “We haven’t found the solution yet. And there’s been a lot of conversation about it but so far the system has not been augmented.”

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley delivers her annual state of the judiciary address to a joint convention of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley delivers her annual state of the judiciary address to a joint convention of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The state’s youth prison, Long Creek Youth Development Center, has faced calls for closure from advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. A 16-year-old transgender boy killed himself at Long Creek in 2016, and a 2017 audit found the prison was housing “many youth with profound and complex mental health problems, youth whom the facility is neither designed for nor staffed to manage.”

Lawmakers gave Saufley a standing ovation Tuesday when she said: “If the only option for placement in Maine is Long Creek, which is designed for very specific circumstances, we are not doing justice for our children.”

Saufley later said that the youth prison’s future is up to lawmakers and the executive branch. But she again stressed that Long Creek provides services needed for youths with “very particular circumstances.”

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley delivers her annual state of the judiciary address to a joint convention of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Chief Justice Leigh Saufley delivers her annual state of the judiciary address to a joint convention of the Legislature, Tuesday, Feb. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“If that setting were no longer available at Long Creek but was available community by community, that would be fine,” she said. “If the setting is no longer available at all, then we will have serious concerns in regards to some of the youth, who need very restrictive settings.”

In 2017, Maine’s former corrections commissioner said the state was working to develop regional residential facilities for youth. Last year, former GOP Gov. Paul LePage’s administration proposed new regulations to launch secure children residential care facilities to prevent children from receiving treatment outside Maine or at facilities that don’t provide needed services.

The administration of new Democratic Gov. Janet Mills didn’t immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday on the status of such plans.

Saufley said the state should move cautiously to ensure its youths get the treatment they needed.

She noted that when the state closed the Augusta Mental Health Institute in 2004, officials planned to then create a robust community mental health system. The hospital was the first in the state to serve the mentally ill and was later named Augusta Mental Health Institute.

“That did not work as well as we all hoped,” she said. “And many people with mental illness are now in our county jails. I would not want to have the state to make the mistake of doing that with its youth.”

Democratic Sen. Cathy Breen, who’s submitted a bill calling for a statewide plan to treat mental health and substance abuse disorders, said she agrees with Saufley that the justice system “is not the place to address mental health.”

“What I think has been missing for many years now is a Department of Health and Human Services that is invested in high quality community mental health services across our state,” Breen said. “I think now we have a great opportunity with a new administration.”

The chief justice also said Maine is moving forward with a system that will allow online access to court documents. Two Democrats plan to sponsor a bill to clarify which records will be made public.

Saufley said the system could be rolled out in some areas of the state by late 2020.

“We need to do it right,” she said.

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