Juvenile Detention Alternatives Put Focus On Teen Mental Health

Sep 20, 2016

This month, WBOI is reporting on teen mental health issues. Last week, we looked at addiction and opioid abuse, and now we follow the story to the Allen County Juvenile Center.

WBOI’s Lisa Ryan reports that the center is trying to address teens’ mental health problems, sometimes through alternatives that keep them out of juvenile detention.

Credit Lisa Ryan / WBOI News

The Allen County Juvenile Center is a secure detention center. It has 140 beds, but on the day I visit Judge Dan Heath, there are only about 53 teens in detention. Heath oversees the Allen County Juvenile Center, or ACJC. He says on average, the center locks up about 18 fewer kids per day compared to last year.

Since Heath arrived at ACJC in April 2013, he has tried to lower the number of teens in maximum security.

That’s because since Heath arrived at ACJC in April 2013, he has tried to lower the number of teens in maximum security. Instead, he’s implementing alternatives like home detention, curfew checks, and a program that teaches the teens life skills. Heath says kids in that program might get homework help, go to counseling, take educational trips or engage in community service projects.

“That’s helped lower our numbers because ... in the last 3 or 4 months, we’ve filtered I’m guessing 150 kids through that program,” Heath said. “So we’re bringing our numbers down. We’ll continue to.”

The average teen is in the program for 3 to 5 days, and is then released. Sometimes the kids enter into probation, but other times, they just go back to school.

Safety is a concern for Heath when releasing the kids into an alternative program. He says teens take a Detention Risk Assessment to determine whether they can be safely released. Depending on how they score, the teens are either placed in secure detention, sent to an alternative program, or released to their parents’ custody.

This is all part of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI. Heath says Allen County is one of close to 40 counties in Indiana implementing JDAI right now.

"Personal drug use... is something that we need to be dealing with as a medical issue, as a mental health issue."

The initiative is funded in large part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which says reducing the number of teens in juvenile detention saves taxpayers money. The foundation also released a report saying juvenile detention centers don’t reduce the likelihood that a teen will be locked up again in the future.

Holli Seabury is the CEO of McMillen Health in Fort Wayne, and she sees the benefit of having alternative programs for teens, especially when a teen is charged with a drug offense.

“When it’s personal drug use, there really is no reason to incarcerate somebody for that,” Seabury said. “That is something that we need to be dealing with as a medical issue, as a mental health issue.”

Seabury says juvenile detention can sometimes cause more problems for the teens.

“What you’re doing is you’re giving them a whole new peer group that has a criminal history,” she said. “You’re giving them the stigma of having been incarcerated, and you’re taking away a lot of their future.”

Seabury says this can lead to mental health issues when they leave the detention center.  

Judge Heath says many of the teens he sees already have mental health problems. When a teen enters into ACJC, they are usually given a mental health assessment that monitors whether the teen is a threat to his or 

ACJC offers classes for students both in and out of secure detention.
Credit Shane Armstrong

her own safety. Heath says a lot of the time, mental health issues are paired with aggressive behavior.

“Here’s the difficulty for those kids: Not only are we not able to adequately address their needs, but we try to place them in facilities and the placement facilities don’t want aggressive behavior either,” Heath said.

With efforts to keep fewer kids locked up, a lot of the detention center's space is empty.

With efforts to keep fewer kids locked up, a lot of the detention center’s space is empty. Heath says he was advocating for an unused wing in the detention center to be converted into a mental health section, but that no longer looks like a feasible option.

“It became clear to me that there’s not money,” he said.

Even though Heath is still having trouble finding long-term placement for teens with mental health issues, he says some local organizations are interested in addressing the juvenile center’s immediate needs. He’s in talks with Parkview Behavioral Health to bring in two new child psychiatrists to evaluate the teens, in addition to the one child psychiatrist already working with ACJC.

As the number of kids housed in secure detention continues to decrease, there’s still the issue of unused space. Heath now hopes to possibly use the space for non-violent young adult offenders currently housed at the Allen County Jail, which is overcrowded. This would give some 18, 19, and 20-year-olds the opportunity to earn their GED and make themselves more marketable after leaving the detention facility.

The idea is that non-violent teens and young adults will be rehabilitated into the community, rather than spend their lives in a cycle of incarceration.

This is the third installment of WBOI’s series on teen mental health. So far, we’ve focused on teens in middle and high school, but in the final part of the series, we’ll look at teens in their first years of college and how that transition could affect their mental health.