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
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
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
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
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
They are usually court-adjudicated delinquents and have been
made wards of the state. Last year, the Youth Center lodged 20
"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
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
The case landed in Jackson County, where the girl's father and
stepmother live, after being shuttled between Eaton and
The girl's mental health history rivaled her rap sheet, which
included having to be pepper sprayed in one encounter with
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
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
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
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
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
However, the screening process is not designed to diagnose
specific mental ailments such as bipolar, attention deficit or
"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
"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
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
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