The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

California Jails Serve as Warehouses for Mentally Ill Kids

by Rebecca Clarren

Lack of mental health services for children in California is so severe that hundreds are incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities while waiting for care, a recent report found.

Feb. 1, 2005 – A new congressional report has found that in California, the state agencies charged to protect mentally ill children frequently shatter their vulnerable health by failing to provide timely care. Every day, due to a lack of community resources, more than 250 young people suffering from illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia sit in jail waiting for mental health services, according to a report commissioned by Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California), ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform.

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A chilling depiction of a system that has abandoned its children, the report found that of the 43 California juvenile detention facilities surveyed, 27 warehouse youth who have committed no crime. Rather, due to a lack of state-provided mental health services, many children’s only way to access the treatment they need is through the juvenile justice system.

Other children who have reached crisis and are a danger to themselves or their families must sit in jail while waiting for spaces to open in mental hospitals or residential treatment facilities. Four unidentified juvenile penal halls acknowledged holding children under the age of twelve and in one case as young as eight.

Of the 27 facilities that hold youth waiting for services, 59 percent report that the staff has no mental health training.

"We are overwhelmed by the sheer number of mentally challenged youth that we must deal with," one administrator commented in the survey. "We have become the depository of last resort for all acting out, behaviorally challenged, developmentally disabled [youth] when others don’t know how to handle [them]."

Placing mentally ill kids in a jail purgatory has huge repercussions in both the short and long term.

Waxman commissioned the analysis on the heels of a national report released in October, 2003 by the non-profit Rand Corporation which found that California did one of the worst jobs in the country of providing mental health services to children.

"It is deplorable that hundreds of youth in California and thousands across the country are incarcerated needlessly because community mental health services are not available," Rep. Waxman told The NewStandard. "This is an urgent problem. We need to ensure that there are adequate resources in every community for children who need mental health care."

Placing mentally ill kids in a jail purgatory has huge repercussions in both the short and long term. For those facilities that hold youth waiting for proper placement in a mental health facility, 70 percent report suicide attempts and 74 percent report that these children attack others. In such an environment, say those surveyed in the Waxman report, the correctional employees cannot do their job for the rest of the inmates.

"The mission of corrections is to rehabilitate, but correctional facilities aren’t equipped and in many cases staffed to provide the care that these kids need," said Joe Weedon, government affairs director for the American Correctional Association, a national trade group for corrections officers. "These kids stretch the resources and staff to levels that impair the general well-being of … those that need care, [the other inmates], and corrections professionals. The bottom line is these kids should not be in detention."

This dangerous dynamic is also expensive. California juvenile detention facilities spend an extra $10.8 million each year to house mentally ill teens until they are granted treatment, according to the Waxman report. If the California Department of Youth Authority increased the amount of mental health services by only ten percent, the state would save $31 million in juvenile justice costs annually, according to a 2001 report by the Little Hoover Commission, California’s premier independent state oversight agency.

Instead, California has been anything but proactive. The 2001 Little Hoover study contained findings similar to those in Waxman’s report, but rather than develop policies to reform the system, this past summer the state legislature cut funding for services designed to coordinate the various agencies that service mentally ill children from a $20 million budget down to $350,000.

In an effort to force the system to improve the availability of community-based mental health services for children, in 2002, the non-profit Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and a coalition of public interest organizations filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of up to 80,000 children and their families against the California Department of Social Services. The case still awaits a trial date.

In the meantime, Rep. Waxman is considering drafting federal legislation that would force states to provide better services for mentally ill children. The Congressman may propose the Justice Department begin collecting annual national statistics about the juvenile justice system such as the ones created in the report. In general, though, at a time when political winds are pushing for more state responsibility, says Waxman’s office, it may be unrealistic to expect that the federal government can take over what constitutes huge portions of state budgets.

Furthermore, state agencies are unreceptive to the idea. Stephen Mayberg, director of California’s Department of Mental Health Federal, said oversight will not help kids obtain the services they need. He said the state is striving to coordinate the juvenile justice system with the mental health system and that Waxman's report should be looked at in a broader context.

"There are ten million children in the state and we offer [mental health] services to 250,000 children per year," said Mayberg. "With 250 children awaiting placement every day, how big a problem that is -- I’m not sure." He added, "Even so, the report is a reminder everybody can benefit from. We know clearly that there are problems in our juvenile justice system."

Mayberg hopes that financial relief is on the way. A new state law, passed in November, will create an estimated $800 million annually to fund mental health services by taxing the richest Californians. He said the state plans to use this money to offer more services and better collaboration between various agencies.

But long-time critics doubt that with the state’s track record, it lacks a true commitment to helping the affected children.

"The Waxman report is revolting, but sadly it is not entirely surprising given the serious holes in California’s children’s mental health system," said Christine Vaughn, staff attorney at the Bazelon Center. "If California wanted to do the right thing it could end the practice of punishing kids for its failure to provide services. Juvenile justice is no place for a fragile child. It’s terrifying."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Rebecca Clarren is a contributing journalist.

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