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After suicide of transgender teen, mom sees need for more mental health care

After suicide of transgender teen, mom sees need for more mental health care
Photo: AP Photo/Marina Villeneuve

UPDATE: Maine’s corrections commissioner is promising a thorough review of procedures and policies. Click here for details.

The mother of a 16-year-old transgender boy who killed himself at a Maine juvenile detention facility is calling for more mental health resources for young people behind bars.

Charles Knowles, who dreamed of working as an activist for LGBT youth, was found dead at the Long Creek Youth Development Center on Nov. 1. The teen was scheduled to appear in court this week for setting fire to his house in August.

Michelle Knowles said she begged authorities to give her son mental health treatment but was told he wouldn’t get it because he was being held temporarily.

“A child died because mental health issues were not being addressed,” Knowles said in the living room of her North Vassalboro home Wednesday.

State corrections officials have released few details about the death, citing privacy concerns. Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the gender rights group GLAD have called for a state review of the center.

Knowles said her son faced intolerance in his life and was “sad” to be required to stay in the girls unit, but she said that wasn’t his only challenge. He faced anxiety, depression, trauma, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenic symptoms, along with the pains of gender identity and growing up.

She said he had made numerous suicide attempts but had a team of mental health professionals who long supported him.

During his weeks at the facility, however, he was “languishing” and was on and off suicide watch intermittently. She said that hours before her son killed himself, she finally received word that he would receive the help she had begged for: The facility approved clinical help after a doctor on Charles’s team happened to visit the facility and intervened.

“I never let that child die on my watch,” she said. “They said they could keep that child safe.”

Her son was born Maisie and later chose the name Charles. He would also go by Maze, and many of his official documents still list his birth name.

On Wednesday, Knowles sorted herbs from her garden as she pointed out her son’s presence in the room around her: pieces of his pillowcase that she cut up to share with his friends and a colorful construction paper chain made by those who knew him.

Knowles said she has Charles’s cellphone, and is grateful for the text messages his friends keep sending.

The mother said after her son’s death, she spoke at the South Portland facility, where young people shared stories of Charles welcoming, comforting and listening to others. She said she urged detainees to be kind to each other, and said that a child handed her a note that read, “Children aren’t being paid attention to.”

She stressed she didn’t blame the professionals who tried to help her son.

“More eyes on this will help,” Knowles said. “With better training, more support, they can do a better job, so these people aren’t as broken as I am.”

If you are a trans or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 can also be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.

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