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Officials seek ways to protect mentally ill teen-agers

Monday, October 01, 2001

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A group of county planners, researchers, juvenile court representatives and others will meet soon to discuss ways to keep mentally ill teens out of juvenile lockups.

"The system abandoned these kids long ago," said Michael T. Flaherty, director of behavioral health initiatives for the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, which is organizing the meeting with RAND/University of Pittsburgh.

Flaherty, a psychologist and former head of the St. Francis Health System's psychiatric and addiction services, said mental health units for teens began closing about 10 years ago as insurance coverage and funding sources dwindled. With less access to treatment, more mentally ill youths are now in danger of veering farther and farther off course until they get in trouble with the law.

"We need to find out where these kids are coming from," Flaherty said.

"I'd be interested to know if they were ever diagnosed, ever offered treatment, ever given the opportunity for alternatives to the behaviors they were exhibiting."

In its invitation to the Oct. 10 meeting, foundation President Karen Wolk Feinstein said a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series "provoked many emotions and much dialogue as to what we might do with children so that they don't end up in jail because of an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness."

The July 15-18 series, "It's A Crime: How Mentally Ill Teens Are Trapped in Lockups," documented how mentally ill teens often spend months in detention centers because private treatment facilities will not accept them. Often, they have trouble adjusting to life in jail, act violently toward others or themselves, then get pushed deeper and deeper into the juvenile justice system.

"Erosion of the supports in the system has allowed these kids to fall through the cracks," Flaherty said. "I think our current approach is behind the times, and needs shoring up. At the end of the meeting, I hope we can say, 'What should this community do next to best address the mental health needs of kids in jail?' "

In a related development, Allegheny County plans to send a contingent of 16 local officials and family members for a two-day visit this week to the Wraparound Milwaukee program, which has received wide praise for keeping troubled teens out of lockups and residential placements.

The Milwaukee program's director, Bruce Kamradt, has cited its funding structure as a key to its success. Money for mental health, juvenile justice and child welfare is pooled in the countywide program, making it easier to tailor services to each child's needs. The Wisconsin program also was highlighted in the PG series.

"They are eight years ahead of us, so certainly the hope is to learn from them, with a goal of seeing what they have done for their system of care that could be considered for replication here," said trip coordinator Gwen White, program director of Community Connections for Families, a county program that uses community volunteers to intervene with troubled preteens before they get caught in the juvenile justice system.

Among those scheduled to fly to Milwaukee are Patricia Valentine, deputy director for the county's office of behavioral health; Jim Rieland, administrator for juvenile court services; and Alex Wilson, director of Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. White said federal funding would cover about two-thirds of the cost, which she estimated would be less than $1,000 per person.

"They [represent] a place that's figured out some of the answers, so we need to go and see what they have learned."

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