Report Finds Some Youths With Mental Illnesses Held in Detention Centers While Awaiting Treatment
An average of 281 youths with mental illnesses are placed in California detention facilities daily while they wait for openings in community mental health programs or treatment, according to a congressional report released Monday, the AP/Contra Costa Times reports. The report -- commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform -- surveyed 43 of the state's 49 juvenile detention centers between Jan. 1, 2003, and June 30, 2003 (Werner, AP/Contra Costa Times, 1/25). The centers surveyed did not include California Youth Authority facilities for youths who commit "serious crimes," the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Buchanan, San Francisco Chronicle, 1/25).
According to the survey, 27 facilities, or 63% of centers surveyed, reported detaining youths ages 21 and younger who were not being charged with a crime but were waiting for mental health treatment (AP/Contra Costa Times, 1/25). Over the study period, 799 youths were reportedly held "unnecessarily," according to the Chronicle (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/25). One facility reported holding an eight-year-old child, and 17 facilities reported holding children who were 12 years old or younger while waiting for mental health services.
The survey also found that the average length of stay for youths with mental illnesses waiting for treatment was 64.2 days, compared with 30.8 days for all other detainees. Many of the detention centers also reported suicide attempts or aggressive behavior by those waiting for mental health treatment (AP/Contra Costa Times, 1/25). The cost of housing the youths was $10.8 million in 2003 (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/25).
Waxman stated in the report, "The misuse of detention centers as holding areas for mental health treatment is a major problem in California. It is unfair to youth, undermines their health, disrupts the function of detention centers and is costly to society." Waxman called the delays "inappropriate," while others said it was illegal (Friedman, Los Angeles Daily News, 1/24).
Waxman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced bills to address the issue in the last session of Congress, but no action was taken. Waxman said he would "certainly reintroduce the legislation and work with Sen. Collins on this issue and hope that we can get more attention paid to the problem" (AP/Contra Costa Times, 1/25).
Other advocates say the funding from Proposition 63, a ballot measure approved in November 2004 to provide funding for mental health services, would help address the issue.
Youth Law Center attorney Susan Burrell said, "The basic problem is that there aren't enough mental health services in the community. The juvenile justice system becomes a repository for a lot of these kids."
Attorney David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program, said, "The good news now is that we have resources under Proposition 63, and the state is looking carefully at the high-needs populations, including children in juvenile justice facilities. But mental health needs to work with courts in a more organized way, so children who get dumped in the juvenile justice system get the help they need."
Steinhart added, "Juvenile detention centers are nearly bankrupt in the resources needed to identify children's mental health problems and provide the level of service needed. Kids arrested and locked up have multiple problems beyond mental health -- including histories of drug abuse and dysfunctional families -- and need help" (Castelli, Los Angeles Times, 1/25).