Let’s Talk Mental Health: Juvenile injustice

By: Oscar Wright, Ph.D.
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The crisis is devastating and undeniable: An invisible population of youth lingering between the juvenile justice and mental health systems with unprecedented unmet needs.

Current studies increasingly validate the fact that 65-70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a diagnosable mental health disorder. According to recent studies, the majority of these youth have multiple diagnoses.

Many families and children who seek our help and guidance embrace the principles of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice:

• Community-based and culturally sensitive mental health services should be accessible to all youth and families in need.

• Young offenders with mental health problems should receive appropriate and adequate services in the juvenile court system.

• Families should never have to surrender innocent children to the juvenile court system just to get mental health treatment.

As the mental health crisis escalates in communities across California, fundamental questions are being asked such as:

• How many mentally ill children are in the juvenile justice system?

• How many entered that system because they could not get help earlier?

• What kind of mental health care do they get once in the system?

• How many of them would have ended up in juvenile justice despite receiving adequate attention from other agencies?

As the answers to these questions begin to trickle in, we are informed by recent studies made available through the coalition that:

• 36 percent of respondents to a national survey said their children were in the juvenile court system because mental health services outside of the system were unavailable to them.

• 23 percent of respondents to a national survey were told that they would have to relinquish custody of their children to get needed mental health services.

• 20 percent of respondents to a national survey said they relinquished custody of their children to get needed mental health services.

• Among youth who receive structured, meaningful and sensitive mental health treatment, recidivism rates are 25 percent lower than those among untreated control groups.

• The most successful mental health programs — those that treat young offenders in their families and communities — reduce recidivism up to 80 percent.

• Roughly two-thirds of all dollars spent on the juvenile court system go to housing delinquent and mentally ill youth in costly lockups that provide little more than warehousing.

While at different times, a single agency may have primary responsibility, these youths are the community’s responsibility and all responses developed for them should be collaborative in nature, reflecting the input and involvement of the mental health, juvenile justice and other systems.

United Advocates for Children and Families was awarded funds by the Zellerbach Family Foundation to develop a training course specifically for families and youth to provide information allowing them to navigate the two systems.

Best practices and greater collaboration between the two systems and the community at large must be established with a sense of urgency. To do anything less would be “juvenile injustice” at its worse.

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Oscar Wright, Ph.D., is the CEO of United Advocates for Children and Families, a statewide nonprofit that provides support to parent, families, children and youth experiencing mental illness.