Dozens of juvenile offenders with serious mental illness are released from TYC lock-ups every year because they’re too sick to treat — not because they’re no longer a threat to the community. In the last five years, the agency has discharged hundreds of youth under this mental illness statute.
One was a schizophrenic and psychotic 16-year-old who fatally stabbed a Tyler high school teacher in September, just months after his release from the TYC.
TYC officials say state law requires them to discharge juveniles who are mentally ill or profoundly disabled if they’ve completed their minimum sentence and aren’t benefiting from rehabilitation programs. Of the 206 youth offenders they’ve released under this provision since 2005, 20 percent have been recommitted to either the TYC or an adult lock-up.
Until this spring, a youth discharged for mental illness wasn’t eligible for specialized psychiatric services in the community. Enter Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, who last session shepherded a bill providing reentry services and health care referrals to youths discharged for mental illness. That care is being provided by the Texas Correctional Office of Offenders with Medical or Mental Impairment (TCOOMMI).
Prior to the bill “the treatment youth received out in the community was sporadic,” TYC spokesman Jim Hurley said. Hurley said with the McReynolds bill, the TYC can now refer kids with mental health diagnoses to care providers in their communities.
The legislation fills a gaping hole, but advocates say it isn’t foolproof: It’s tough to force youth and their guardians to participate with treatment plans or fill prescriptions. The mentally disturbed teenager who killed his Tyler teacher was discharged from the TYC after McReynolds’ measure went into effect.
While the Tyler case did occur after McReynolds' bill took effect, IMO that's not an indictment of his approach: It takes time to build up treatment capacity, which isn't necessarily available in every community. And for that matter, a 20% recommitment rate for youth receiving mental health discharges is really quite low compared to TYC's overall recidivism rates, which hover around 50%.
There's a risk the Tyler case will be used as a Willie-Horton-style indictment of Texas' juvenile justice system, when really it's an indictment of the profound lack of community-based mental health treatment and the inadequacy of the justice system to deal with mental illness. That view was expressed in Ramshaw's story by our friend Ana Correa
“For the kids who suffer from severe mental illness, it’s a shame they end up in the TYC to begin with,” said Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “My fear is that [the Tyler case] will be used as an example to not have anyone paroled out, when the truth is we just need better services.”
Relatedly, yesterday Ramshaw offered up an important article on the use of physical restraints on youth with disabilities in public schools. She wrote that in the 2007-'08 school year:
Excellent stuff from Ramshaw and the Tribune. I'm glad to see the new site up and running an wish Evan Smith and everyone involved the best of luck.
school staff restrained four of every 100 special education students, with some students being restrained dozens of times. More than 40 percent of restrained youth suffered from emotional problems like post-traumatic stress disorder; nearly 20 percent were autistic.
Educators say restraints are sometimes the only way to prevent disasters. They point to the September 2009 case of a 16-year-old Tyler special education student who fatally stabbed his music teacher in a classroom.
But disability rights advocates say the numbers point to a crisis in Texas special education. They say teachers are resorting to physical restraints because they aren’t properly trained to manage their students’ disabilities – posing a threat to vulnerable children and to themselves.
Their concerns were echoed in Washington this spring, where a federal agency exposed thousands of restraints – including several deaths – of special education students in schools nationwide. In many cases, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found restraints were performed on children who weren’t physically aggressive, and by teachers who weren’t trained to use them.