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The challenges of reporting on mentally ill kids in California’s juvenile justice system

The challenges of reporting on mentally ill kids in California’s juvenile justice system

Picture of Raheem Hosseini

It started with an off-hand comment by a law enforcement official.

It was April 9, 2013, and I sat amid roughly three-dozen concerned neighbors, community leaders, retirees and aspiring law enforcement personnel inside Sacramento Police Department headquarters for the start of a 10-week seminar on the local criminal justice system.

Interim chief probation officer Suzanne Collins spent her limited time summarizing her department’s mandate: supervising adult offenders once they exit custody; producing in-depth assessments for the courts to consider at sentencing; and housing juvenile delinquents. While describing this last mission, Collins made the off-hand comment about juvenile hall having turned into a “commitment facility” for mentally ill children with no other place to go. The session quickly moved onto other business. In my head, however, the bell had been rung.

I had become familiar with the shifting complexion of adult prisons and jails, where a third to half of inmates experience mental health issues, depending on who — and when — you asked. But I had done little reporting on the juvenile justice system, and I was surprised to hear such an alarming assertion dropped so casually.

Because, if true, this is where the prison pipeline began for children who needed help, not institutionalization.

It wasn't until weeks later that I was able to schedule a tour of juvenile hall. The kids I briefly met, especially in the special needs unit, stuck with me. Who were they? What brought them here? And where would they go next?

Early challenges

I managed to pick story subjects with multiple, co-existing privacy obstacles: Minors (1) with mental illnesses (2) in the juvenile justice system (3).

How would I find them? And can a mentally ill minor even grant consent to their story being told? That's a question I posed to a few of the speakers present at a week-long health reporting fellowship at the University of Southern California in February 2014. I got sympathetic shrugs in return.

When I started reporting, I immediately reached out to multiple youth justice foundations, advocacy groups and researchers to see if they could put me in touch with mentally ill incarcerated juveniles, former juveniles and their families. Many requests went unanswered; some referred me to other groups or individuals; most said they couldn't put me in touch with anyone.

Meanwhile, locating hard data on mental health trends within the juvenile justice system proved almost as tricky. According to probation officials, their records, which include psychological assessments of anyone booked into juvenile hall, were all hard copies. Most everything was filled out with pen and paper, then stuck in a filing cabinet. And the data I was pulling from research studies, white papers, legislative briefs, court rulings and the like were a couple years old.

Then, blind luck: An official with the Board of State Community Corrections, which monitors local jails and juvenile halls, emailed me out of the blue to compliment an old story. The BSCC collects population information from individual juvenile halls, ranches, camps and other alternative placement options (as well as adult jails). It makes these reams of data available through drop-down menus that allow users to track individual institutions across the state by month or quarter. For instance, using the search tool, I can tell you how many female juveniles were on electronic home supervision awaiting court dispositions in Los Angeles County in January of 2004: 74. Pretty cool, right?

I considered rates of psychotropic medication, attempted suicide, assaults on staff, placement waits, early releases due to lack of space, booking following a home removal and other data sets. I spent hours collating raw data into usable forms from which I could derive trends and comparisons across time and geography.

In September 2014, the Sacramento Criminal Justice Cabinet released a 183-page analysis of gaps in the local juvenile justice system, nine years after the first such report. The new report quantified its findings in detail, and contained more recent data than was available through the BSCC.

During my research, I also did boring stuff like comb local government and school board agendas looking for anything with even a glancing connection to the population I was researching. I visited a central city grade school where restorative justice and integrated classrooms were implemented to keep students with special needs in the classroom and out of disciplinary hock. The experience didn’t make it into my final draft, but informed my reporting.

The same can be said of more than a dozen interviews I conducted during this period, as well as numerous reports, articles and journals I read.

Telling their stories

After multiple dead ends and false starts where someone would grant an interview and then later disappear, one foundation came through with a 22-year-old former juvenile offender. The young woman, Ashley Drake, agreed to be interviewed on a day she was also meeting a probation officer she’d had since childhood.

Candid and patient, Drake took me through her whole life trajectory — 13 group home placements, 12 juvenile hall incarcerations, multiple psychiatric hospital admissions, suicide attempts, truancy violations, etc. More than a decade after she and her siblings were first removed from their parents' home, Ashley was facing criminal charges as an adult. Like so many, Ashley started off as a girl who needed help, but was institutionalized instead.

While this proved a central interview, I couldn't present Ashley's story as representative of what was happening now in the juvenile justice system. Sacramento's juvenile hall had undergone a pretty massive reconstruction since she was there. I needed current minors. By this time, I had built up a rapport with officials and they knew I would keep my word about protecting minors’ identities, as well as others I interviewed. Top juvenile hall officials were, of course, initially wary of giving such access to a reporter, but came to know me over a period of several months, many in-person chats, phone calls and email exchanges. I made no promises about what kind of story I would come away with, except to say I would report what I saw and respect the minors' privacy. In the end, that was enough. I went back to juvenile hall's special needs wing, this time without the usual top-level escorts, and spent hours there recording what I saw, speaking to detained youths and front-line staff.

For the children I used in my story, I crosschecked their accounts and pieced together backstories through multiple interviews with probation and public defender staff. With few exceptions, the voices featured in my story were the result of multiple interviews, as juvenile court documents were sealed.

A story with legs

After the Nov. 27, 2014, publication of “Kids, not criminals,” I received feedback from several parents of juveniles with mental health issues and former wards themselves.

Public health officials reached out to me almost immediately to tell me of programs they were conceiving to respond to this population, including mental health services and alternatives to psychiatric hospitalization for teens and transition-age youth experiencing a mental health crisis.

County officials have also announced their intent to apply millions of dollars received through a federal entitlement program to aide "crossover" youth who are at risk of being pulled into the juvenile justice system because of other issues. A pilot juvenile court program is just getting underway here to better assist sexually exploited minors who often get labeled as delinquents and cut off from child welfare resources due to their charges. Officials hope to broaden that approach throughout the juvenile justice system.

After fading into the afterlife that all news articles retire to, my project found new life a month later when it was rediscovered and circulated on Twitter by children's advocates. This resulted in an impromptu online forum. This was timely, as I had a related story coming out the following day about a federal entitlement program for foster kids that I wove into the conversation.

The reporting also seeded new projects. I've begun researching a story involving two mothers whose severely mentally ill sons are falling through the cracks of their respective county mental health systems.

Cropped photo r. nial bradshaw via Flickr.

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