(Austin-Texas) Three leading advocacy organizations representing the needs of youth with mental illness released a report today calling on Texas state lawmakers to “think outside the cell” and increase community-based supports and services to improve rehabilitation of young offenders with mental health care needs.I certainly agree with the overall sentiment, but it's an open question whether there are sufficient service providers available throughout the state, particularly with looming budget cuts to community based mental health services.
LINK TO REPORT
Advocates and policy specialists from Disability Rights Texas, the National Center for Youth Law and Texas Appleseed examined the experiences of youth with mental illness committed to the Texas Youth Commission (TYC). Their resulting report, “Thinking Outside the Cell: Alternatives to Incarceration for Youth with Mental Illness,” features case studies of youth placed in TYC facilities. The report reveals the devastating impact of incarceration on youth with mental illness, provides models of successful diversionary strategies, and includes policy recommendations.
According to the authors, Texas already has started to shift its focus and funding in the right direction. In 2009, state lawmakers reduced funding of the TYC by $100 million and provided an additional $45.7 million to juvenile probation departments for programs intended to divert youth from TYC lock-ups. This legislative session, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation (SB 653 Whitmire), consolidating the TYC and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and prioritizing community-based rehabilitation of young offenders.
“Children with mental health issues come into contact with the justice system at disproportionately higher rates than other youth,” explained Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed and a contributing author of the study. “When placed in secure detention, children with mental illness often suffer severe trauma, and their emotional issues escalate.”
Fowler cited a case from the report involving a 14-year-old boy with diagnosed mental health issues who has been assigned a new caseworker at least five times since his commitment to TYC in October 2008. For a period of time, he even went without any caseworker at all. Rather than progressing, evidence suggests he has regressed to the point of repeatedly cutting himself.
“When provided with community-based alternatives to incarceration, this population of children shows significant improvements in mental health, overall behavior, even academic performance,” Fowler said. “Access to effective mental health services is central to addressing the underlying sources of these youths’ offenses.”
Patricia Soung, a co-author of the report, concurred. “Diversion really is primary to helping these children and reducing recidivism,” said Soung, staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law. “Keeping them in institutions is often more harmful than helpful.”
According to the report, the 141 Texas counties electing to receive diversion funds throughout their juvenile probation departments experienced a 32 percent reduction in youth commitments from 2009 to 2010. And among the almost 4,000 youth served by these programs during 2010, only 58 youth were subsequently committed to TYC.
“Time and time again, we’ve seen that when these youth and their families are provided with the community-based supports and services they need at home, or close to home, recidivism drops dramatically and the children’s mental health issues improve,” said Natalie N. Nelson, mental health policy fellow and attorney for Disability Rights Texas and co-author of the report.
“The single most important policy decision that Texas can make to prevent contact or further involvement of youth with mental health issues with the juvenile justice system is to invest in community mental health services,” Nelson concluded.
Monday, May 16, 2011
'Juvenile justice advocates call for diversion of youth with mental illness to community-based settings'
I received press release today via email from juvenile justice advocates with the same headline as this blog post urging the Legislature to fund diversion programming and intensive supervision for mentally ill youth. Here's the text: