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Disturbed, violent teen-ager 'like a time bomb'

One problem that just won't go away

Sunday, October 21, 2001

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Word spread quickly among staff members at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center early this month -- he's coming back.

No one needed to ask who.


 
 

The four part series

   

 

The young man in question was arguably Shuman's most difficult and troubled resident ever, a young man so emotionally disturbed and combative that during an earlier stay, Shuman administrators put him on a unit by himself for two months.

He'd been at a maximum security lockup in Chester County since August, but officials there couldn't handle him. Before that, he'd been bounced out of the secure treatment unit in Allentown, supposedly the last stop for mentally ill male teens in trouble with the law in Pennsylvania. And before that, he lasted barely a year at a specialized, secure mental health program in Texas. Officials there wanted to send him back after three weeks.

Between each placement, he was sent to Shuman while officials figured out what to do next.

"He's the extreme of the extreme," said Dr. Oscar Bukstein, the consulting psychiatrist for Shuman. "Thank goodness, Allegheny County has seen only a few." The 19-year-old is not being identified because he was a victim of severe sexual abuse as a child.

While the young man's profile may sound one-of-a-kind, his story puts in stark relief the shortcomings of Pennsylvania's approach to dealing with mentally ill teens in the juvenile justice system.

Officials at all levels, from detention to juvenile court to probation, say that 10 years ago, someone like him probably would have been committed to a state mental hospital. But Pennsylvania, like many states, has closed its adolescent units at state hospitals in favor of residential programs in local neighborhoods.

A four-part Pittsburgh Post-Gazette series published in July documented how many mentally ill teens languish in detention or get pushed deeper into the corrections system because private, community-based residential programs won't accept them. The neighborhood programs are not certified as secure facilities, so they cannot lock residents in or build the security fences around their buildings necessary for working with aggressive mentally ill teens.

Early last week, after many meetings and long deliberations, court officials decided they would send the 19-year-old to the New Castle Youth Development Center, a state-run, maximum-security juvenile facility in Lawrence County. Programs in other states now say he's too old for them.

"There obviously isn't anything left," said Jim Rieland, who oversees juvenile court services in Allegheny County. "If this doesn't work, we're back to the drawing board."

Domenick Lombardo, New Castle's supervisor of psychological services, said Thursday that he believed that the experienced staff and resources at New Castle could handle the most troubled teens. "No one is going to present anything we haven't seen before. We've seen it all," he said. "If we have to draw pictures, that's what we'll do."

Everyone is crossing their fingers that something works. When he turns 21 in the summer of 2003, the young man will be free to go wherever he wants.

"Would I feel comfortable with him going out in the community right now?" Bukstein said. "Not really, particularly if I had to make the call" about releasing him.

The young man's personal history contains many of the major risk categories for aberrant behavior -- physical and sexual abuse at a young age, removal from a dysfunctional home before he was 10, strong symptoms of manic depression and other mental disturbances, as well as mild retardation.

Those who've dealt with him say even those diagnoses don't tell the whole story.

"He's like a time bomb," said a youth care worker who alerted the Post-Gazette when the teen came back to Shuman on Oct. 3. "He puts you on edge the whole eight hours. You don't know what he's capable of doing."

Even Shuman Director Alex Wilson acknowledged, "It's a drain" when the young man is at Shuman.

The teen-ager agreed to meet with a reporter at Shuman last summer.

He is tall, almost slight, with handsome, soft facial features. He showed no interest in shaking hands at introduction and frequently squinted at his visitor with suspicion.

During a 30-minute conversation, he disjointedly related a childhood of abuse and neglect, braiding that with proclamations about his favorite singing group or ways to end gang violence. At several points, he took offense without provocation, once instructing his visitor to write something on a notepad, then accusing him of "making me look like a joke."

His actual delinquency record is not particularly remarkable, officials say, but that's probably because he's spent most of the past 10 years in one placement or another.

He routinely assaults other teens and staff members. One evening last week, he got into a shouting match with staff members and had to be restrained.

Although Bukstein said the teen "has improved 1,000 percent" from a few years ago, he remains a difficult and discouraging case.

"When he's 21, he's going to go somewhere. He doesn't have the skills to know what he needs to do, nor does he seem interested in acquiring those skills," Bukstein said. "He will definitely go off his medications. The question is, is he going to be a nuisance or a danger to the community?

"We don't know."



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