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Article of Interest - Mental Illness

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Bridges4Kids LogoMental Illness Stresses Juvenile Justice System
by Larry O'Connor, Jackson Citizen Patriot, June 13, 2004
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He was a whiz at origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into various shapes and objects.

Leave him alone in a room with a ream of thin copier bond and he would emerge with the most sturdy three-dimensional container, a child-welfare advocate marveled.

"It could hold water," said Brian Philson, director of the Jackson County Youth Center.

Despite the boy's uncanny knack to craft something out of nothing, the 13-year-old was hard pressed to build an appropriate place to sort out his apparent inner demons.

The teenage boy, who had committed several felonies, was saddled with a compulsive disorder, which caused him to yank his hair out with such vengeance that his head had to be shaved as a precaution.

His may be an extreme case, but his standing in the juvenile justice pecking order offers insight on how mental health issues are increasingly taxing a system that was designed to deter bad behavior and not treat emotional ailments.

To find a place to lodge him was problematic for the state Department of Human Services, Philson said.

Last week, the boy was eventually transferred to Maxey Training Center in Whitmore Lake, where those with severe mental illness are sent. While there, it's hoped he can learn a trade, Philson said.

With his glasses and overall boyish demeanor, he looked out of place among other teens in the Youth Center's detention area.

"I know juvenile delinquents; this kid was not a delinquent," said Geremy Burns, county intensive probation coordinator.

A girl with a similar compulsive disorder sat at an adjoining table in the Youth Center's detention facility, which is where juveniles suspected of committing felonies are held pending court hearings.

The pair could be poster children for what Philson lamented as society's throwaway kids.

With parents who don't want to -- or can't -- take them in and a state child welfare system unable to find a suitable placement, they end up in a holding pattern at places like the Youth Center.

They are usually court-adjudicated delinquents and have been made wards of the state. Last year, the Youth Center lodged 20 state wards.

"We have kids with mental health issues who have no other place to go," Philson said. "Sometimes detention becomes a dumping ground because there are no other options available."

Depending on who's counting, experts estimate anywhere from one-third to one-half of the kids who go through the juvenile court system have some type of diagnosable mental illness.

As a Family Court referee, Ivy Arbuckle sees the litany of youthful offenders, some of whom display troubling signs of mental distress.

At a juvenile hearing recently, a boy appeared before Arbuckle with self-inflicted wounds on his arms, with at least one large incision requiring stitches.

"Those are cutters," said Arbuckle, explaining the generalized term for self-mutilation.

On Wednesday, a girl charged with malicious destruction of property and resisting a police officer in Eaton County sat before Arbuckle.

The case landed in Jackson County, where the girl's father and stepmother live, after being shuttled between Eaton and Hillsdale counties.

The girl's mental health history rivaled her rap sheet, which included having to be pepper sprayed in one encounter with authorities.

She suffered from depressive and mood disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

She was recently released from a residential treatment center and was on a waiting list for follow-up treatment at Foote Hospital, a probation officer said.

Meanwhile, her father and stepmother were at the end of their tether in dealing with the girl's incorrigibility.

"They (counselors) advised us to lay it on the court," the stepmother said.

Such comments are increasingly familiar, Arbuckle said.

At the county Youth Center, a counselor from LifeWays' Journeys program makes a weekly visit.

Catholic Charities of Jackson counsels kids who are sexual offenders, while AWARE Inc. and Florence Crittenton assist at-risk girls.

Philson speaks highly of those respective services, but admitted the mental health treatment is performed on a "triage" level at the facility's detention wing.

On-site mental health professionals would be ideal for juvenile centers, child advocates say.

"It's needed, but where are you going to get the money for that?" Arbuckle asked rhetorically.

While there's no psychologist or psychiatrist on staff, the Youth Center does have a family counselor who makes mental health referrals.

Charles Baker balances those duties with counseling kids and their family members on substance abuse, behavioral and a myriad of other delinquency-related issues.

Among the 198 incident reports last year at the center, six involved self-abuse and another eight were related to suicide threats or attempts.

Those figures may have been higher without a screening process, which alerts juvenile officers to potential mental and behavioral problems.

Through the county's Diversion program, first-time juvenile offenders take a standardized true-false assessment.

During the first three months of this year, 171 kids were tested in the county. Of the monthly average of 58 screened, about 22 were referred for services that included mentoring, group therapy and one-on-one counseling, said Lesia Pikaart, LifeWays community relations manager.

The assessment reveals a child's potential for depression, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, traumatic experiences and substance abuse.

However, the screening process is not designed to diagnose specific mental ailments such as bipolar, attention deficit or compulsive disorders.

"It's a whole different perspective now," said Arbuckle, reflecting on how the glossary of mental health terms has exploded since she started in the juvenile justice system 13 years ago.

"They just called it conduct disorder back then."

In the 13-year-old boy's case, Maxey Training Center at least has an on-site psychiatrist. His needs extend beyond mere behavioral reform, his probation officer said.

The boy was in a residential treatment center for three years between the ages of 8 and 11. His family moved to the area a year ago.

Within a three-month span, he was involved in a number of felonies, notably resisting arrest and busting out a patrol vehicle's window, his probation officer said.

Despite his emotional hurdles, the boy was making strides while attending classes for emotionally impaired students at East Jackson Middle School. With his becoming a state ward, there was a palpable sense of defeat in juvenile probation circles.

"One of our main goals is we match services with the problems. When we can't team up the child with those services, you can imagine how that makes us feel," said Teresa Hawkins, Probate Court youth services director.

When Burns dropped the boy off at Maxey Training Center last week, the teen gave the probation officer a last hug before he entered the correctional facility.

"I don't think he realizes the severity of the situation," Burns said.


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