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Incarceration in Florida exacerbates problems for aggressive, mentally ill boy, 17

Monday, February 04, 2002

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Just before Christmas, a juvenile court judge ordered specialized mental health treatment in a locked facility for 17-year-old Michael Durkin after he was thrown out of an Erie County group home for hitting a staff member. The trouble is Pennsylvania has no such facility.

Brian Durkin and Cindy O'Connell are fearful that their son's stay in a Florida mental health center will only deter his progress. "Every time he moves to a new facility he has to start again," O'Connell said. "Who wants to be in high school when you're 20?" (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

It's a Crime:
A PG series on juvenile justice.

So, on Jan. 24, Durkin boarded a jet and headed for a psychiatric hospital in the Florida panhandle, where his care will cost Allegheny County $265 per day. His parents expect he'll be there six to nine months.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profiled Durkin in July as part of a four-part series about mentally and emotionally troubled teens trapped in the juvenile justice system. Four years after his first trip to detention, Durkin is still trying to extricate himself from that system.

Since second grade, Durkin has been diagnosed with a range of mental health problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger syndrome, a form of autism characterized by an inability to form lasting friendships.

One other psychiatric diagnosis has played a prominent role in Durkin's life: intermittent explosive disorder. He has twice been charged with assault after fighting with staff members at mental health group homes.

"He says, 'I know I'm this way and I don't want to be,' " said his mother, Cindy O'Connell of Dormont. His parents noted that Durkin did not have serious problems in Erie until he was taken off lithium, a medication to stabilize his moods.


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Now, less than three weeks away from his 18th birthday, Durkin teeters on the divide between mental health and juvenile justice. Although he has been considered a mental health case to this point, a technicality in state regulations required that his referral to Gulf Coast Treatment Center in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., go through Allegheny County's juvenile probation office instead of the Office of Behavioral Health.

Among other things, that means his treatment will not be as closely monitored by local officials, and his parents may have to pay a portion of the costs, based on their salaries.

"It's a bad system, through and through," said Michael's father, Brian Durkin, of Imperial. "We're criminalizing mental health kids."

The Post-Gazette series that featured Michael Durkin told how mentally ill teens with histories of aggression end up in detention or corrections because no one else will take them. Pennsylvania, like many states, has closed the adolescent units at its state hospitals. Those units were replaced by a network of privately-owned, community residential centers that often refuse to accept teens they consider too difficult.

As a result, problem teens with mental problems languish in detention for weeks and months. Increasingly, teens like Durkin are sent out of state -- since 1996, Pennsylvania's annual cost for placing teens in secure, out-of-state facilities has jumped from $3.4 million to more than $15 million.

"Sometimes I think, 'My son lives in a facility in another state,' " said O'Connell. "It's not like I go around crying all the time, but sometimes it just hits you."

When Durkin landed in detention in spring 2000, he was rejected by seven group homes before a judge decided to just send him to stay with his father. He attended Pressley Ridge Schools in the North Side for a while until he got into a fight at school. A few months later, after more problems at another local program, he was sent to Erie.

Before heading to Florida, he spent three months at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Lincoln-Lemington while county officials looked in vain for a program to take him. Because of his age, even out-of-state juvenile programs were balking.

"It's very important that he gets what he needs right now," said O'Connell. "This is the last chance he has to get the treatment he needs. He's almost 18, and he's going to go into the adult system."

Durkin's parents divorced when Michael was 9, but both have stayed closely involved in his care. They also have a 14-year-old daughter, Diane, an honors student at Keystone Oaks High School.

While Durkin was at Shuman Center, Brian Durkin, O'Connell and her parents made sure he had visitors five days a week, "but now they've taken him far away," his mother said. It may be three to five months between visits while he's in Florida.

"I don't want to wait three months to see my son. I don't," his father said.

Meanwhile, both parents fear that precious time has been lost as Durkin has moved from placement to placement. As it is, he is 18 to 24 months away from getting a high school diploma and they don't know what educational opportunities he'll have in Florida.

"Every time he moves to a new facility he has to start again," O'Connell said. "Who wants to be in high school when you're 20?"

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