Making Juvenile Hall the Mental Health Provider of Last – Not First – Resort

Dec. 18, 2015 / By

Why are so many kids who need mental health services ending up in juvenile detention?

Let’s say a child is at home and their behavior is escalating, and the parents are afraid for the safety of themselves or the child’s siblings … A lot of times they’ve been through this before, so they’ll have been to the emergency room and they realize that they’re going to have to sit there with their child for 24 hours or 36 hours waiting for someone to do something other than say, “We don’t have a bed available.” Or they may be told to turn around and go home because there’s nothing the ER staff can do. Under those circumstances, you can imagine that they might call the police. The police will take the child into custody.

Or a child’s behavior is escalating, and the parents aren’t thinking of it as a mental health meltdown – it’s just frightening. So they call the police under those circumstances without ever having had the benefit of someone doing a screening and telling them that their child has what appears to be a mental illness and they need to have an assessment … If they don’t have access to health care, that’s not going to happen, and so you’re much more likely to have intervention by the police.

Part of the problem is the stigma. If no one wants to acknowledge or even test whether a child has a mental illness, then it’s often the case that you’re going to blame it on bad behavior, and you’re going to resort to the juvenile justice system.

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