Sick Kids

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

"For good or bad, for right or wrong, we are feeling overwhelmed by the needs of mentally ill children," Bailey says.

Two Hispanic boys with crew cuts sit on their knees smiling and waving in the window of an observation room at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center.

"I'm on vacation," says one 15-year-old sitting on a ripped blue cot-length pillow. "I've gotta get away from home a little bit."

Corsicana Superintendent Don Brantley says mentally ill kids need to be protected.
Wendy Grossman
Corsicana Superintendent Don Brantley says mentally ill kids need to be protected.

He was arrested for stealing a car and violated his probation by missing curfew. Avoiding his probation officer, he ran away from home and would crash with friends or stay awake walking the streets. Facing a murder charge, he's hoping to be deported back to El Salvador.

This morning he broke a toothbrush in half and used it to scratch a dozen shallow cuts onto his left wrist. "The devil did it to me," he says. "'Cause he's mean."

He points to a third boy sitting quietly in the corner clutching his pastor's business card. "He showed me how to do it," he says.

"No, I didn't," the boy says. "Don't lie."

The quiet boy's arms are covered in serious carvings -- his street name, "Little Chaos," is scraped in gothic script. He says he ran away from home because his aunt beat him.

The second smiling, waving boy from the window says he misses his mother; he tried to kill himself by stabbing his shin so he could go to heaven and watch over her.

He starts banging his head against the wall. The first boy with the scratched wrist begins banging his head, too. Soon they're in rhythm, smiling and slamming their skulls.

This is a typical tour of the detention center. "I've been over there twice -- I don't want to go back," says HCPC's Moore. "I couldn't hardly take it. It's dark and dingy-looking. It's blue; it's depressing even if you don't have a problem."

Seeing kids her grandchildren's age sitting in dark rooms staring at walls moved her to do more than just listen to Bailey's plea to get these kids better care than he can give. "It concerned me that there was no visible therapeutic care," Moore says. "When the kids get out, they have nothing to look forward to -- except coming back."

Bailey says he has given the same pitch hundreds of times, but Moore is the first person to take action. She found an empty wing in the 250-bed psychiatric hospital, and within two years of her first tour Commissioners Court approved a $1.9 million contract with HCPC. Since May, the juvenile offenders' wing has been full; 75 teens have received services. The average stay is 28 days, and the goal is to send kids straight home (if the court allows).

According to the National Mental Health Association, treatment programs reduce recidivism by 75 percent. HCPC plans to track teens for five years, hoping to see similar success rates. "If you believe that adolescents and teenagers are still developing and not at a fixed point, then in theory, this is the prime time to intervene," says Dr. Andrew Harper, director of child and adolescent services.

Along with music and recreation therapy, kids learn coping skills and anger management. Therapists try to teach offenders not to blame their actions entirely on their illness and to learn to make better choices.

"We try to expand the kid's ability to solve problems," Harper says. "No psychiatrist, no medicine is going to make you make the right decisions. We don't have the magic pill."

The ward is painted in bright blues and greens; inspirational, never-give-up quotations paper alternate walls. Kids wear their own clothes to maintain a sense of individuality and identity, says Linda Green, the nurse manager over child and adolescent services, and they can bring their own bedsheets. Sleek, sculpted chairs and IKEA-type tables sit in the front room next to long black couches and a big-screen TV. The gold-colored game room has nonviolent video games, foosball, Ping-Pong and an air hockey table.

"We didn't want to be the juvenile detention center south," Harper says.

"Derrick's" mother was addicted to crack before he was born. His father was in prison and his mother was in and out of jail for possession, so Derrick spent his childhood being bounced around San Antonio projects. The 18-year-old says he has been arrested seven or eight times, started drinking when he was six and soon moved on to smoking weed dipped in embalming fluid and recreationally using Xanax and codeine.

"My aunt's boyfriend used to chill in the block and sling dope, and I used to chill with them," he says. He was 14 when he asked his "uncle" to teach him the business. "I seen all the jewelry and the cars," he says. "They had big pieces of chain and Rolexes -- I wanted all that." His mother had her friends buy from him in exchange for free drugs for herself.

He was a member of 74 Hoover, a branch of the Crips, drove a blue 1981 Cutlass and wore three one-carat diamond studs in each ear. He dropped out of school before he was 16. "I was too busy in the streets," Derrick says.

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