Juvenile detention facilities have become the new psychiatric asylums, according to an August 9 article in the New York Times. According to the Times, two thirds of all juvenile detainees have been diagnosed with at least one mental disorder, and with state budgets for community mental health on the chopping block, experts predict the problem will only grow worse.
Eric Trupin, a psychologist hired by the California Department of Justice to monitor mental health services in the juvenile justice system, said that in a May 2009 tour of The Los Angeles County Central Juvenile Hall, “some detainees appeared to be held there for no reason other than that they were mentally ill and the county had no other institution capable of treating them.”
The ever-decreasing budgets for effective and comprehensive community mental health services have left some caregivers with tragic decisions to make. One boy described in the Times article had been in and out of mental health services since he was 5 and attacked a schoolteacher. Ultimately, he was committed to the Department of Youth Services.
“I’ve begged D.Y.S. to get him into a mental facility where they’re trained to deal with people like him,” said the boy’s grandmother. “I don’t think a lockup situation is where he should be, although I don’t think he should be on the street either.”
A Times survey of state mental health offices found that at least 32 states cut their community mental health programs by an average of 5 percent in 2009 and plan to double those budget reductions by 2010.
Some states, like California, are under federal mandates to reduce the number of juvenile defenders in custody. That leaves cities and counties to pick up the slack, often in their own detention centers. So the problem may simply be shifting from the state to the local level, and continuing cuts will likely only swell those numbers.