In 2008, in a proactive effort to avoid criminalization of youth whose delinquent conduct is significantly impacted by a serious mental illness, the 314th District Court Judge John Phillips provided the leadership for the development and implementation of Harris County’s first Juvenile Mental Health Court. The Mental Health Court started on February 3, 2009 and presently oversees approximately 30 cases. Youth and their family are involved in the Mental Health Court for a minimum of six months. This innovative problem solving court utilizes a therapeutic approach and emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. The ultimate goal is to ensure public safety while decreasing repeat offenses by facilitating coordinated mental health interventions.
Problems facing the Juvenile Justice System
Though the prevalence of mental disorders among youth in general population is estimated to be about 22 percent, the prevalence rate for youth in the juvenile justice system is estimated to be as high as 60 percent. Due to a lack of appropriate and accessible community behavioral health services, frustrated families frequently resort to the juvenile justice system as they struggle to manage their child’s escalating emotional difficulties. This is a particularly critical issue in Texas, which ranks 49th nationally in funding for children’s outpatient public mental health services.1
Youth whose delinquent conduct is impacted by their mental illness are often adjudicated and placed in county facilities that are ill-equipped to address the underlying clinical component of the delinquent conduct. Not surprisingly, placement in a punitive environment often exacerbates mental illness and leads to an escalation in symptoms and problem behavior which institutional staff are not trained to effectively manage. Additionally, removing a child from their family and community isolates the child in an artificial environment making successful reintegration and sustainable change within the family system unlikely.
The Court’s Solution
In response to the large number of cases involving mentally ill juveniles appearing in his court, Judge John Phillips expressed an interest in presiding over a juvenile mental health court. However, at the time this interest was expressed, the probation department did not have the ability to effectively screen and identify mentally ill youth prior to their court appearance. Until recently, comprehensive behavioral health assessment was conducted following adjudication and only on juveniles who were being placed outside the home.
In 2007, the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department implemented a triage assessment system at the front door of the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center that effectively and efficiently identifies children with mental illness, mental retardation and substance abuse.
Data generated by this assessment substantiated the anecdotal experience of the juvenile justice community. Approximately 50 percent of all youth in the detention center have symptoms of a mental illness, with 22 to 55 percent experiencing symptoms of severe emotional disturbance. In addition to creating a comprehensive profile of juvenile justice involved youth, data generated by this assessment supported the creation of a juvenile mental health court to serve as a therapeutic alternative for those youth whose delinquent conduct is a direct result of their mental illness. In a proactive effort to avoid further criminalization of these mentally ill youth, Judge John Phillips provided the leadership for the development of a juvenile mental health court and in 2008 Harris County Commissioners Court approved the funding necessary for implementation.
1“Children’s Mental Health in Harris County”. A Report of the Mental Health Needs Council, Inc. (2006)