Sick Kids

For many mentally ill teenagers in Texas, the only way to get treatment is to get arrested.

"A teenager kicking up their heels a little bit is not the same thing as a persistent pattern of violating other people's rights or societal norms," Young says. "These are not typical teenagers. Most teenagers don't repeatedly try to kill themselves or steal cars. Teenagers may get mouthy, they may get horsey, they may like to dress differently or dye their hair or like music that parents don't like, but that doesn't violate the basic rights of others."

Nationally, horror stories have emerged about incarcerated emotionally disturbed kids being shackled to toilets, involuntarily injected with psychotropic drugs and overmedicated to sedate, not treat. Kids have been punished for manifestations of their mental illness because guards aren't trained to identify symptoms and deal with them properly. "Our criminal justice system is just not situated to be a psychiatric hospital," Representative Turner says.

For years Harris County's standard treatment for a mentally ill juvenile offender has been to slap a football helmet on his head and handcuff him to the bed. "That obviously was, is and will always be inhumane," says Elmer Bailey Jr., executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. "Justice is not supposed to be so finite that no matter what you do, that if you get sick, you have to stay sick or be treated unfairly." But since the department's contracted hospital beds are always full, handcuffs and helmets are still used as temporary treatment to keep kids from slashing their wrists or splitting their skulls. "We've gotta do something until we can get them in that bed," Bailey says. "It should never come to the point where there's not an alternative for a mentally ill child that doesn't involve being strapped to a bed."

A 15-foot candy-cane fence surrounds Corsicana.
Wendy Grossman
A 15-foot candy-cane fence surrounds Corsicana.
Elmer Bailey agrees that putting football helmets on mentally ill kids isn't what the county should be doing.
Deron Neblett
Elmer Bailey agrees that putting football helmets on mentally ill kids isn't what the county should be doing.

Lois Moore, HCPC's chief administrator, was horrified when she toured the Juvenile Probation Department and saw how mentally ill kids were treated. "It was not a therapeutic environment," she says. Thanks to her efforts, a 16-bed wing for juvenile offenders opened this year at HCPC. In addition, a handful of prevention programs have been formed by the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, Children's Protective Services and the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. This year Dallas County began contracting with Intercept, an early-intervention program, and continues to do wraparound services for juvenile offenders. The goal is to catch children with mental illness early, get them into counseling and prevent them from committing bigger crimes.

"If you get rid of the mental illness, you might get rid of the behavior problems," Bailey says.

Dr. Steven Schnee, executive director of MHMRA, says Harris County needs more early-intervention programs. But two months ago, as part of statewide legislative health care cutbacks, the budget for child and adolescent services was slashed by more than $300,000. These cutbacks mean MHMRA will treat at least 1,000 fewer kids each month, forcing therapists to work with the sickest children instead of treating illness before it worsens. "We scrubbed down our programs," Schnee says.

During the last ten months in Corsicana's stabilization unit, "Malcolm" tried to hang himself eight times. The 19-year-old banged his head on the walls, fought with other boys and slashed his wrists; instead of swallowing his medicine, he sniffed it to get high.

Malcolm was diagnosed with depression and chronic suicidality. "I feel that I don't need to be in this world," says the teen from a small Central Texas town. "There ain't nothing here for me." Growing up he tried to kill himself five or six times. In May 1998 he was arrested for selling marijuana and was sent to TYC's Gainesville State School, where he earned parole. After a dirty urine analysis, fighting in school, stealing khaki pants from Wal-Mart and not identifying himself to a police officer, he was placed in a Dallas residential treatment center. Back home, he broke into a house, stole a Schwinn Predator and returned to TYC.

He wants to be a truck driver so he can go places.

Twenty years ago there was a movement to deinstitutionalize people and send them home. But when patients left the hospitals, treatment programs weren't available in the community, TYC's Reyes says, which led to mentally ill parents having mentally ill children they didn't know how to deal with. "It is transgenerational, and it grows exponentially," Reyes says.

The more services a city has, the fewer sick people are in jail, says Dr. Bill Schnapp, chairman of the Mental Health Needs Council of Houston. "What you've got is a cascading problem and failure of social policy where you've got kids inappropriately or inadequately served. Society is going to pay for these people one way or another," Schnapp says.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice estimates that 50 to 75 percent of incarcerated kids have a diagnosable mental disorder. Harris County has 4,300 teens on probation but only 16 beds at the psychiatric hospital and about 50 offenders placed in contract services. Dallas County has about 1,900 offenders on probation, but its detention center has only eight psychiatric beds. Two-thirds of the teens arrested committed nonviolent crimes, Reyes says, so theoretically, had these kids received counseling and mental health care, many might not have entered the system.

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