Violent Children: A Mental Health Perspective

Oct. 24, 2011
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.

In my previous column, I asked several questions in regards to the mental health versus juvenile justice debate around violent children. For this column, I consulted with social service professionals to get a perspective on what is and isn’t working in mental health and how can mental health and juvenile justice professionals work together to address the needs of both violent children and society.

What Works

One of the agreements is that the mental health system generally has an understanding behaviors are symptoms and that treating symptoms will not cure the underlying problems. Most also agree the juvenile justice system is generally a punishment driven system. The justice system appears more like a “you must pay the price for what you’ve done” type system. Mental health involves many people who have an understanding that most young people who get involved in delinquent acts do not go on to become criminals. “They work through this,” Dave Ziegler, Executive Director of Jasper Mountain, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children explains. An important understanding that mental health has is in reference to the development of the human brain and especially the prefrontal cortex and its impact on juvenile behavior. He emphasizes mental health has a focus on causes rather than retribution.

Clarence Williams Jr., a professional with 30 years in the social services field and a variety of philanthropic positions, pointed out the wide variety of mental health resources available besides those provided by the government. He mentioned Seattle’s Breakfast Club, a group of community members offering solutions, resources and hope to area youth since 1976. Transitional programs offered through resources such as Breakfast Club, assist youth with a definite direction of where they’re going, as well as, recognition of trauma and the sense of loss. When talking about mental health services, all available resources including government and private community organizations exist. Mike Wasilewski, an MSW and municipal police officer mentions several resources available in certain jurisdictions, such as police-based and led Crisis Intervention Teams, Mental Health Courts and Police-administered Peer Courts.

What Is Not Working

The way children are currently assessed is one way the mental health system is not working. “There is a lack of integration into other programs,” states Williams. “The process baselines what assessments will do to get them into programs. They’re still in a box and the box isn’t working.” Ziegler states mental health’s embrace of the medical model in the 1980’s and the subsequent focus on diagnostics has been detrimental. “(Diagnoses) aren’t particularly distinct,” he explains. “There are conflicts involved with what is wrong with kids and what to do about it.” He states medical diagnoses such as lung cancer or AIDS, for the most part, would be standard regardless of doctor, whereas, mental health diagnoses such as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Bipolar would be argued about and different doctors would determine different diagnosis. “There is no blood test for these,” he states.

Another way mental health is not working is in the utilization of resources. “The resource base is only shortened by who they’re working with,” says Williams. “They aren’t able to work together.” Ziegler used an example of a child punching the security guard while being arrested for stealing from a local grocery store. The juvenile justice system generally only looks at the behavior and the punishment. If a deeper investigation into the behavior was done, professionals may discover the child was stealing food to take home to his siblings because he couldn’t stand to watch them go hungry anymore because mom or dad could not or would not provide for them. Instead of utilizing resources to punish the child, perhaps the delinquent behavior could be prevented by connecting the family with a local food bank. “We need to figure out the causes and address those instead of waiting and reacting,” Ziegler says.

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.

About the Author

Michelle Perin

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. 

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