LA County has a problem with how it handles children with mental illness in juvenile hall

Published on
October 24, 2019

A 13-year-old intellectually disabled boy was pepper-sprayed, then shoved into a room with the door closed. In another incident, a girl with a mental health diagnosis was pepper-sprayed in the groin, then left to use toilet water to relieve her pain.

These are two recent incidents that highlight a problem at the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Following NBC4’s reporting on a dramatic spike in pepper spray use in Los Angeles County juvenile halls and camps, an Office of Inspector General report found 90% of the youth in county lockups had an open mental health case. That’s more than the national average. Up to 70% of incarcerated children have a diagnosable mental health disorder, according to a recent national report.

The department admits it has a problem, but officers don’t know the extent of it because they're ill equipped to detect the myriad mental disorders they’re faced with daily.

We’re interested in documenting how the department handles juveniles with mental health issues while in custody and beyond, what treatment they receive and the programs they are exposed to once they’re released from custody

A recent report said that the juvenile halls in LA are not conducive to helping children with mental health issues. There’s a lack of privacy and youth are often re-traumatized, sometimes leading to more violent and aggressive behavior.

We’re researching data showing the racial, ethnic and economic make-up of the youth in the halls and camps. We’re reaching out to contacts who are working with families and youth across LA who can put faces to the data. We’re documenting best practices, including the Missouri Model, where officials tout rehab as an effective, humane and cost-saving system — a system that LA leaders have been studying for nearly a decade but have struggled to fully realize. 

We’re contacting community-based organizations that work to guide families to services after children are released back into the community.

One such program has been working with the Probation Department in South Los Angeles since 2001 to provide therapy to juvenile offenders between the ages of 12 and 17. They help families who are struggling with issues related to delinquency, violence, substance abuse, behavior problems and family conflict. Many of the children involved in the justice system have been victims of child abuse or neglect or have witnessed violence.

LA County, which represents a quarter of California’s youth justice population, has received significant funding from the state to change its approach to youth justice. We’ll request that data to find out how and where the money has been spent over the years and how the programs have fared.

We hope to show the number of professional heath care workers in the halls and camps and in the communities, who are treating or working to rehabilitate children in the justice system, and budgets for mental health care. 

Our stories will highlight the challenges the county faces in properly handling children in custody with mental health issues and the hurdles that low-income families face in trying to get help for children in need.

Through this 2019 Data Fellowship, we hope to be able to tell a more complete, heartfelt and thought-provoking story about the crisis and the journey that leads children into the juvenile justice system.