WASHINGTON – Two thirds of juvenile detention facilities in the United States lock up mentally ill children as young as 7 because there is no place else for them to go,a congressional committee was told Wednesday.
A report by the minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform found that about 2,000 youths in 33 states are incarcerated each day solely because mental health services are not available.
The report was released by Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Susan Collins,R-Maine,and House Government Reform Committee ranking member Rep. Henry Waxman,D-Calif.,at a hearing.
“A worker in a juvenile center in Washington stated that ‘We have had a number of juveniles who should no more be in our institution than I should be able to fly,'” Waxman said.
Collins said that when a child has a serious illness like cancer,the family can turn to a doctor. But when a child has a mental illness,families are often forced to go to child welfare or juvenile justice systems to secure treatment. Neither is intended to serve children with mental illnesses,however.
“Beat ‘em up,lock ‘em up,or give ‘em up,characterizes the choices that some families face in their efforts to get help for their children's mental illness,” Collins said. “No parent should have to give up custody of his or her child just to get the health care services that that child so desperately needs.”
Collins said a separate study last year by the General Accounting Office found that,in 2001,parents placed more than 12,700 children into child welfare or juvenile systems so they could receive mental health services. Of these children,9,000 entered the juvenile justice system.
Over the six-months covered by the committee staff report,7 percent of children in detention – nearly 15,000 – were in custody simply because they needed mental health services.
The report found 698 juvenile detention facilities,and 524 responded to the survey. They spend nearly $100 million annually “simply to warehouse these children and teenagers while they are waiting for services,” Collins said.
Carol Carothers,executive director for National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Maine,said that juvenile detention centers have limited resources and serve complex populations.
“When children are detained in juvenile centers in Maine,they are housed in a single unit where 10-year-olds can be housed with 20-year-olds,” Carothers said.
Waxman said that 160 of the detention centers reported that some of these children tried to commit suicide.
“Most juvenile detention facilities do not have the luxury of separating youth with mental health issues from the general population,” said Leonard B. Dixon,director of the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Center in Michigan. “This creates an atmosphere of conflict and unrest for everyone and the potential for crisis can be very high.”
Dixon told the story of one boy,15,who swallowed glass and cut himself in a detention facility. He had been in and out of detention since the age of 9 when he was placed in foster care. The boy has an explosive temper but has never been charged with a crime and is awaiting appropriate care,Dixon said.
Tammy Seltzer,senior staff attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington,said a few programs do exist to treat mentally ill children.
“There have been some programs that are effective alternatives to incarceration,” Seltzer said. “Wraparound Milwaukee works closely with parents to provide services tailored to the needs of each child so children can stay out of crisis and out of the juvenile justice system.”
Witnesses asked the federal government to take action.
“It is shocking that so many youth are jailed unnecessarily because they cannot obtain community mental health services. This is a crisis that demands the attention of Congress,” said Waxman.
Dixon said he was reminded of a saying his father used to tell him.
“You cannot cripple a person and then criticize the way that they walk,” he said.
Collins introduced the Keeping Families Together Act,a bipartisan bill that would authorize $55 million in grants so federal and state agencies can develop more coordinated systems of care for children with serious mental illnesses and their families.
“These children languishing in juvenile detention facilities are being thrown away like yesterday's garbage,but they will be tomorrow's adults,” Seltzer warned.