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How to keep mentally ill teens out of jail

Thursday, October 11, 2001

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Experts yesterday outlined several steps they could begin to take locally to prevent mentally ill teens from getting trapped in the juvenile justice system.

The group of community leaders, county administrators, researchers and court officials particularly emphasized early intervention to identify mentally ill youths before they get into trouble with the law, and programs to break down the barriers among different agencies that deal with troubled youngsters.

The road to progress may not be easy or clear, they agreed. But Michael T. Flaherty, director of behavioral health initiatives for the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, said that "the fact that children with mental illness are ending up in the juvenile justice system means it's safe to say the system is failing."

Flaherty led a three-hour discussion at the foundation's Downtown offices that focused on the growing number of mentally and emotionally troubled youths who land in the juvenile lockups and then can't get out. It's a nationwide problem, as detention center directors across America said in a national survey conducted by the Post-Gazette last year. But it exists here, too.

While the average stay at Allegheny County's Shuman Juvenile Detention Center is nine to 10 days, teens with serious mental health problems have stayed six months and longer because there's no place to send them.

Pennsylvania closed its adolescent units at state mental hospitals five years ago, replacing them with a network of community-based private mental health providers. But those providers can and do refuse to accept difficult youths, saying they cannot safely treat aggressive, mentally ill teens in their non-secure facilities. In some cases, counties resort to sending the troubled teens to out-of-state programs because they can't find appropriate ones in Pennsylvania.

Flaherty said he wants to develop ways to get troubled youths the right treatment before their behavior becomes a criminal matter. "These kids are being identified," he said, "but they are falling through the cracks."

Another participant, Patricia Valentine, who heads the county's behavioral health programs, said an Allegheny County group last week took a "very worthwhile" visit to see the highly-touted Wraparound Milwaukee program in Wisconsin, which has shown some success in keeping troubled teens out of institutions.

"It's not a program that we could transplant to Pittsburgh without some modification, but it certainly has some very valuable elements that we intend to use," she said.

Valentine cited the Milwaukee program's strong involvement with families of the youths, its insistence that mental health facilities accept troubled teens if they want to keep their funding and its ongoing quality monitoring as elements she would like to see started here in the coming year.

One of Wraparound Milwaukee's distinctive features is that it pools juvenile justice, mental health and dependency funding so services can be tailored to an individual child's needs. Such an approach "would certainly enhance our ability" to improve services, Valentine said.

"If we can't do that, we'd like to come as close as we can."

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