Courts struggle with effective ways to deal with individuals whose mental health issues lead to criminal behavior. This is especially true for courts responsible for adjudicating juvenile delinquency. Childhood exposure to violence can impact children’s social and emotional development. It has been linked to poor social functioning and mental health issues, including depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Some children repeatedly exposed to violence, particularly violence in the home, develop PTSD with symptoms such as re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, attachment issues, and impulsivity and inattentiveness that mimic the symptoms of AD/HD1. Children involved in the court system, both the delinquency and abuse and neglect systems, have higher trauma exposure rates than other children. They need access to mental health services and treatment programs that can provide appropriate intervention, and they need a trauma-informed court system that can work in tandem with these providers.
Yet as a CFCC Student Fellow examining Maryland’s delinquency system, I find myself wondering how effective our system is at meeting the needs of these children. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is charged with providing “individualized care and treatment to youth who have violated the law or who are a danger to themselves or others2.” DJS treatment programs include Functional Family Therapy and Multi-systemic Therapy that provide services in both clinical settings and in the home. These interventions have the potential to help to positively impact children and their family unit as they address some of the underlying issues, including trauma, that lead to the child’s delinquency.
The problem with this model, however, is that children have to be adjudicated as delinquent before they have access to these services. This is especially problematic for poor families who cannot afford to pay for services on their own. Where middle and upper income families can afford to pay for private therapy programs to help their children who are acting out, families without these means must wait for the behaviors to worsen and the consequences to become more severe before intervention is available. By then, the intervention may be too little too late.
Perhaps it is not DJS’s role to provide access to mental health and family therapy services before youth are adjudicated as delinquent. The agency is after all charged with the care and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. If DJS cannot provide these services, I think the state should provide access through another agency. While it is true that in the current economic climate funding for such programs is scarce, the state ends up paying the price down the road in the form of juvenile detention. Maryland spends $22.6 million each year to detain youth.3 According to one study, 2/3 of young people in juvenile detention would meet the requirements to be diagnosed with a mental disorder.4 Furthermore, Maryland continues to move forward with plans to spend $70 million building a 120-bed jail to house youth who have been charged as adults. Juvenile detention is expensive and arguably ineffective. Looking at these statistics, I believe that more investment at the front end to provide children and families with better access to mental health services could lead to lower rates of offenses. Our current system is reactionary. A proactive preventive approach would likely be a better use of the state’s limited resources.
1 Lisa Pilinik & Jessica R. Kendall, The Safe Start Center Series on Children Exposed to Violence Issue Brief #7: Victimization and Trauma Experience by Children and Youth: Implications for Advocates (2012) available at www.safestartcenter.org.
2 Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, DATA RESOURCE GUIDE FISCAL YEAR 2011 (2012)
3 STOP BALTIMORE YOUTH JAIL: OPPORTUNITY NOT DETENTION, www.stopbaltimoreyouthjail.com.
4 Just Kids Partnership, JUST KIDS: BALTIMORE’S YOUTH IN THE ADULT CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM.
A REPORT OF THE JUST KIDS PARTNERSHIP TO END THE AUTOMATIC PROSECUTION OF YOUTH AS ADULTS (2010) available at www.justkidsmaryland.org.
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