Opinion

Alarm bells are sounding over treatment of vulnerable people. Can we hear them?

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Locked away. Out of sight. Out of mind. Out of luck.

Kids are left in prison because there’s no place else for them to go. Men with autism are living in hospital emergency rooms, no other bed to be had. A child is locked up, gets sick and never gets better.

It’s like a living purgatory — lost souls left adrift by a system that doesn’t care and a society that prefers the neatness of forced incarceration, isolation and perhaps even death over compassionate policy that recognizes basic humanity.

Three stories show us our collective failure.

In the first, a 16-year-old boy from Skowhegan was convicted of nonviolent property crimes and sentenced to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. The sentence — and the conditions at Long Creek — is out of whack for petty crime.

But “J.R.,” as the minor is called in court papers, hasn’t been able to get the help he needs in his community. But our health care system is so broken, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that he had to stay in prison for lack of a better option.

In her concurring opinion, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley talked about the failures of the state to take care of kids like J.R.

“The lack of alternatives available to the court, to the youth and his family, and to the attorneys attempting to carry out the Legislature’s mandate for rehabilitation of a youth who is out of control, is both shortsighted and fraught with potential long-term consequences,” Saufley wrote.

Keeping this kid in prison is not justice. It’s cruel and likely ineffective. Maine will pay for its shortsightedness, and J.R. will carry the burden of teen years spent behind bars.

He’s locked away.

In a second story, Bangor Daily News reporter Matt Stone, who continues to produce significant, important accountability journalism, uncovered a shocking story about people with no place to go.

Kyle Roderick and Robbie Faloon are two men living with intellectual disabilities who were forced to stay in emergency rooms for weeks at a time. They weren’t sick or injured. Instead, they were stuck in the ER because there was no safe place for them to go.

Roderick and Faloon have been staying in group homes, but had become aggressive and potentially dangerous to other people living with them.

Faloon spent 39 days living in the emergency room at Houlton Regional Hospital and 21 days in the ER at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston.

Roderick spent 35 days in the ER, going outside only once during that time. With no other options apparent, he was sent to a residential care program in Florida at a tremendous cost to taxpayers — almost $600,000 to date.

Maine law demands better. It requires that the state maintain an adequate number of crisis beds. But with the LePage administration, the law remains just a suggestion.

Sixteen of 24 crisis beds went away last year when the Department of Health and Human Services failed to renew a contract with a service provider. Without them, people in crisis are left adrift.

Far away from family and friends; hidden in a hospital or out of state. They’re out of sight.

And Vice News uncovered the story of Yazmin Juarez and her 18-month-old daughter, Mariee. Juarez and Mariee arrived in the U.S. in March and were sent to a residential center in Texas after seeking asylum from violence in Guatemala.

Mariee was healthy when she came to the U.S., but became ill in Immigration and Customs Enforcement care. She developed a cough and ran a high fever. Six weeks after being released and relocated to New Jersey, the little girl died at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from viral pneumonitis.

“Instead of offering safe harbor from the life-threatening violence they were fleeing, ICE detained Yazmin and her baby in a place with unsafe conditions, neglectful medical care and inadequate supervision,” said R. Stanton Jones, who is representing Juarez in a lawsuit against ICE.

J.R., Roderick and Faloon aren’t easy cases. A young immigrant child who dies from an infection is easily forgotten in the rage about immigration and children in cages. We make it easy for them to be out of mind.

Their suffering is real, but we don’t see it. The systems we’ve put in place — that we allow to exist — aren’t good at taking care of people in their care. But they are really good at keeping the rest of us from seeing the pain.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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