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Need psychiatric aid? Go to kid jail

Need psychiatric aid? Go to kid jail

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A residential pod inside Sacramento County's youth detention facility.
A residential pod inside Sacramento County's youth detention facility. [Photo courtesy of the Sacramento County Probation Department.]

Not everyone who passes through Sacramento County's version of juvenile hall may be there for primarily criminal issues.

That was made clear during a 10-week Sacramento County Citizens Academy course I took. During our first week in April, then-interim chief probation officer Suzanne Collins outlined the predicament:

Because of a sharp decline in mental health resources, Collins said courts are using her youth detention facility “more and more” as a commitment facility. Children who have been declared mentally incompetent or are awaiting an opening at a state-run treatment facility are housed at juvenile hall. Some have been there as long as two years waiting for a transfer, Collins shared.

“We're not a mental health facility, but we're kind of turning into one,” she said.

Read about the projects of other 2014 California Health Journalism Fellows.

Deciding to see for myself, I arranged a tour of the youth detention facility in June with Collins' successor, Lee Seale, and the facility's commander, Mike Shores.

At the time of the tour, there were eight juveniles separated off from the main housing units for their “special needs.”

Some of the youths in that unit were autistic, one of the officials told me, while others experienced emotional or behavioral issues. One of the juveniles was fixated on what he thought was a hornets' next perched in the corner of the square, pointing it out to Shores' attention and explaining the danger it posed to the other kids.

“I'll get in front of it if I have to,” he said bravely. “I'll take the stings. I don't want anyone else to get hurt.”

While this housing unit was where special needs juveniles were placed, it wasn't developed for that purpose. That wing of the facility had been converted into a small library because of a lack of funding to complete it. (At the time, a dozen or so juveniles were watching The A-Team.)

Since a state lawsuit some years back, Sacramento County has a maximum of seven days to transfer adult inmates to state hospital care. It's the only county in California with that condition, according to deputy chief of corrections Milo Fitch, but it doesn't extend to our juvenile population.

For now, these kids wait. That's sort of what this story is about—juveniles accused of crimes who may require mental health care are sentenced to a limbo that could last years.

To what degree is that happening throughout California?

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