PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine unnecessarily institutionalizes youths with mental health and developmental disabilities because of a lack of sufficient community-based services that would allow them to stay in their homes, the U.S. Department of Justice said Wednesday in declaring a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Justice Department conducted its investigation after advocacy group Disability Rights Maine filed a complaint on behalf of a group of children. The rights organization said the children were not able to access community-based services, resulting in institutionalization or risk of institutionalization that violated the ADA.
The Justice Department concurred, saying it found many Maine children with disabilities are unable to live with family because of the state's lack of community services. That means children in the state enter emergency rooms, come into contact with law enforcement and then remain in institutions when they could otherwise remain in their homes, the department said.
“I hope that the violations identified by the Justice Department can be remedied so that these children and their families are able to obtain quality services in their own communities," U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee for the District of Maine said in a statement.
The Justice Department findings said the state suffers from lengthy waitlists, too few behavioral health providers, and a lack of crisis services and support for foster care parents. That means many children need to enter facilities, including out-of-state facilities and the state-run juvenile detention facility Long Creek Youth Development Center, to receive behavioral health services, the department found.
The Justice Department findings include recommendations for how the state can come into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The recommendations include using more state resources to maintain a pool of community-based service providers. Another recommendation states Maine should implement a policy that requires providers to serve eligible children and prohibit refusal of services.
The administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said Wednesday that improving behavioral health services for Maine children is one of its goals. The administration also said the shortcomings of the state's behavioral health system stretch back many years, and the COVID-19 pandemic set back progress.
“We share the strong sense of urgency in ensuring that Maine children with disabilities have timely access to an array of high-quality, evidence-based services that prevent institutionalization whenever possible — and will continue to work diligently towards that end,” said Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Atlee Reilly, legal director for Disability Rights Maine, said that the deficiencies in the children's behavioral health system in Maine have been well documented and that now it's time for action.
“We're grateful for the findings of the Department of Justice," Reilly said. "We're not surprised by the findings, because we hear from these families all the time and we hope that these findings will ensure that these longstanding and well-documented problems are addressed with the sense of urgency that they require.”
The Justice Department report says Maine's lack of behavioral health service has resulted in Long Creek, the state's only juvenile justice facility, filling the gap. The report states its investigation found that Maine's “lack of community-based behavioral health services leads to unnecessary and prolonged incarceration.” It says the state is using Long Creek as a “de facto children's psychiatric facility.”
The future of Long Creek has been a subject of much debate in recent years. Mills vetoed a bill to close the facility last year.
Associated Pres writer David Sharp contributed to this report.