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Doctors, lawmakers, advocates say emergency rooms are no place for kids to stay

Children having mental health crises often end up in hospital emergency rooms for weeks at a time, and now doctors and legislators want to change this.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine health care leaders, doctors, and Legislators say they need to find new ways to help children having behavioral or mental health crises—because too often they’re ending up in hospital emergency rooms for weeks. 

The problem, said Rep. Jay McCreight (D-Harpswell), is that children and teens who have had violent outbursts end up in emergency rooms because parents or even police have nowhere else to take them. And even after they are stabilized in the ER, it can take weeks to find another place for them—meaning those young people stay in the emergency rooms for weeks, or even months.

Dr. Michael Melia, Chief of Emergency Services at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said the problem is getting worse. 

“We are seeing an increased frequency the last six months or so,” the doctor told NEWS CENTER Maine.

“We have had intermittent episodes that have gone as far as 90 days of pediatric patients living with us in the ED (Emergency Department)."

He said recently the stays have been shorter, but that it is not unusual to have a child or teen in the emergency room for days waiting for some sort of placement. 

Rep. McCreight is asking the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee to have Maine DHHS do a full study of the situation, gather and analyze the data and determine what the root of the problem is. She said it is complex, and more than simply a need for more mental health beds. She said some youngsters stay in the ER’s, even though there is no longer a medical need for them to remain, simply because there is no place for them to go that will take a child with behavioral health issues.

“But they come in without control, aggressive behavior often. People are worried about them or what they might do. So the ER is the logical place to go, but this is not the place for them to stay.”

McCreight said she believes part of the problem stems from a steady erosion of locally available state services for those children and families, dating back 20 years. She hopes a DHHS analysis can point to potential remedies, although many, if not all will then likely require added financial support.

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