The mother of a transgender teen who took his own life at the Long Creek Youth Development Center says her son’s mental health needs were going unmet and he was languishing in the facility.
But Michelle Knowles says what haunts her the most is that she believes Long Creek administrators had information that could have prevented his death.
He called himself Charles, Charlie, Maze or Charlie Maze, according to his mother. He had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, principals and doctors. On his online obituary page, people wrote to say that he was “special”, “a joy,” “bright” and a good conversationalist. But, Michelle Knowles says, Maze struggled. The world was difficult for him. On bad days he had hallucinations, couldn’t manage the voices in his head and couldn’t escape them, even though he tried. He had a complicated mental health diagnosis.
“Anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder,” she says. “We were dubious about schizophrenia.”
Knowles says from the time Maze was nine she parked a rocking chair outside the door to his room at night so she could monitor his every move. It was, she says, her way of making sure he was safe, that he took his medication and couldn’t harm himself. And when 16-year-old Maze, who was biologically born a girl, burned down her house and was sent to Long Creek in South Portland, she thought he would be safe. She says Long Creek staff assured her he’d be safe. That was back in August.
“There were multiple issues the child had presented right up until going in. And I said, We need to take care of this, you need to do some clinical work with this child,’ she said. “And they said, Here’s problem. They said the child is not a resident. The child is a detainee.’“
What that means, says Chris Northrup, a clinical professor with the University of Maine School of Law, is that Maze likely hadn’t been ajudicated, hadn’t had a trial or pleaded guilty to a pending charge. And Northrup, who directs the law school’s juvenile justice clinic, says unless a youth has been through court and formally committed, he or she doesn’t have access to education, vocational training and cognitive behavioral programming that residents do.
“When they’re on the detained side, they’re just marking time,” he said. “They can’t use that time. If they get committed they don’t get any credit for it. They don’t do as good an education program. They’re often disconnected from school and treatment and positive peers and they’re just waiting.”
Waiting, says Northrup sometimes for weeks or months for an evaluation to be done, for a bed to open up in a substance use treatment facility, or at a residential treatment facility because they’ve been denied a crisis bed.
“And they’re just waiting for treatment that’s not coming quick enough,” he says.
Northrup says this is something that concerns him. He says studies show that two out of every three kids there have mental health issues co-occurring with substance use disorder. Michelle Knowles says she's convinced that if Maze had been a resident instead of a detainee he might have had a better chance.
“My child was just sitting there, languishing, languishing and waiting; waiting for some help to happen,” she says. “And he couldn’t tolerate it anymore.”
Both the ACLU of Maine and the Boston-based gay and lesbian legal advocacy group GLAD, have asked the Maine Attorney General’s Office to investigate conditions, policies and practices at Long Creek. Specifically, they want to ensure the safety and well-being of gay, bisexual and transgender youth who are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system and who are more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Both the Maine Attorney General’s Office and the Maine Department of Corrections have declined to comment on the request, on the case or on policies at Long Creek, citing confidentiality laws. Knowles says Maze had attempted suicide at least three times at Long Creek before. And the day before he hung himself he told her he how he could do it even though he was being checked by guards every nine or ten minutes.
“I will never forgive them for missing this piece,” she says. “My child told them that we’re supposed to have random checks within every ten minutes. I know that you do it every nine minutes. That means I have every six to eight minutes to die.”
Knowles says while it’s true that Maze was being held on the girls’ unit and would have preferred to have been housed with the boys, she says that was not the most pressing issue for him. He had, she says, already ended his hormone therapy because of his mental health issues. And for Zach Heiden of the ACLU of Maine, that’s what’s so troubling about the placement of youth at Long Creek.
“At the end of the day people have to understand that this is a prison,” he says. “It is not a day care facility. It is not a boarding school and for decision makers to think that they are sending kids there for their own good, that they are going to be safe there and get services there, they need to understand that this is a very dangerous place.”
Since Maze’s death Michelle Knowles has hired an attorney to represent her family. In a statement Walt McKee says he’ll ask an independent agency to conduct a separate investigation “to figure out just how this tragedy ever could have happened.” In the meantime, Knowles says there is one thing for which she is grateful. Maze’s organs were able to be shared with other people who may get to live longer lives themselves.