Violent Children: A Mental Health Perspective

Mental health professionals recognize there is a divide between themselves and juvenile justice professionals although their clientele is the same. They recognize many things are working but many things are not, as well as, understanding working...

Mental health is better equipped for mild to moderately-aggressive children explains Kiva Michels, Jasper’s Clinical Supervisor and children’s social services professional since 1986. “The general mental health system doesn’t do well with severely aggressive kids-those who threaten lives,” she says. “Office-based services don’t work.”  Michels would like to see a whole different system for kids who qualify for intensive services including consistent care and minimization of the focus on money.

Working Together

For needs to be met, both the child’s and society’s, both systems need to work together. “There must be strict accountability,” says Wasilewski. “This is often lost. It must be clear to everyone involved that treatment is the first priority, but should the adjudicated requirements not be met-and for those to exist there must be police action on criminal activity-then punishment will follow. I’m a big believer in the velvet hammer!”

Dr. Ziegler agrees, “(A mental health disorder or trauma history) doesn’t mean we don’t need to come down on a child.” Several years ago, Jasper had an adolescent who was assaultive. In one incident, several staff members were injured. This child had a trauma history, a diagnosis of borderline personality and low cognitive ability. Ziegler made the recommendation this child be brought in front of a judge in a courtroom as a symbol of society’s role in appropriate behavior and accountability. His request was denied. He feels this was a lost opportunity. This child is currently being housed in a juvenile facility for assault.

“Collaboration is critical,” Wasilewski says. “Comprehensive mental health awareness training for officers (and not just in the Juvenile Division, but as far-reaching in the department as possible), prosecutors, defense attorneys, GALs, judges, probation officers, and of course, comprehensive training about the role of LE, and what LE can do, is equally important for the mental health professionals we are likely to collaborate with.” Ziegler adds, “We have got to bring an understanding of the human brain into criminal justice.”

In supporting collaboration, Michels states joint trainings that are a matter of course with juvenile justice and mental health professionals coming together to discuss how to work with kids is essential. “Bring people together to dialogue about traumatized children and looking at the needs of those children through a variety of lenses—Sheriff, DA, judge, caseworker. Sensitivity and understanding amongst everyone,” she says. 

Mental health professionals recognize there is a divide between themselves and juvenile justice professionals although their clientele is the same. They recognize many things are working but many things are not, as well as, understanding working together would provide better outcomes for the children and society. Consideration of underlying emotional/psychological issues while still enforcing consequences and accountability is essential to meeting needs. “We don’t have children, with exception, who decide to become a violent person,” Ziegler explains. Michels would like to see the system be about the needs of the child and not dollars and pots of money. Much of the system is based in the philosophy, “If a child needs something, that’s fine as long as we don’t have to pay for it,” she explains.  The behaviors need to be addressed but through a lens of underlying issues. “Simply trying to punish the bad out of an emotionally disturbed kid is both inefficient and cruel,” Wasilewski concludes.


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About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.

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