Work in progress: mental health of juvenile justice, safety concerns taken into account in a new law

Pictured: The current Marion Co. Juvenile Justice Complex. Juvenile justice advocates are working to address concerns about the juvenile justice system through House Registration Act 1359. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

Amy Karozos

During her early years working in defense, Amy Karozos saw more than one young client attempt suicide in a juvenile facility.

“I used to see very concerning things,” said Karozos, the state’s public defender, “as a response to the risk of suicide in some places where children would just be in isolation.”

Concerns about the safety and well-being of Hoosier youths housed in juvenile justice facilities across the state have drawn the attention of the US Department of Justice on several occasions.

In the early 2000s, the DOJ launched investigations into two Indiana juvenile justice facilities due to concerns about unsafe conditions and a failure to maintain a system of constitutionally adequate protections.

Separate findings found Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility and Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility – now Indiana Women’s Prison – failed to provide young people with adequate protection from harm. and mental health care, among other issues.

Steps have been taken to address these concerns, but the root of the problem facing Indiana’s juvenile justice system is still wrapped up in a tangled mess that lawmakers and juvenile advocates are trying to unravel.

Wendy McNamara

Statewide scope

Indiana State Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, successfully introduced juvenile justice reform legislation at the 2022 session of the Indiana General Assembly that, according to it will reform the system from top to bottom.

House Enrolled Act 1359 was formed from the findings of a 2021 Council of State Governments Justice Center report that identified numerous areas for reform and improvement in Indiana’s juvenile justice system.

Indiana launched a 2020 Juvenile Justice Reform Task Force to analyze the state’s youth justice system and identify places for comprehensive change. The task force, co-chaired by McNamara and Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, then worked with the CSG on a preliminary assessment of the health of the system.

“It’s a really holistic look at what’s going on with our system,” McNamara said.

For its part, HEA 1359 is a voluminous piece of legislation that covers a myriad of juvenile justice issues, chief among them a severe lack of comprehensive data collection from state juvenile facilities, McNamara said. The new law creates common definitions, standardized procedures for data collection and ensures that the data collected targets the right information.

“Are we improving our mental health? Do we ensure that minors receive the right wraparound services or the right reintegration tools if they end up in (correction department) or in detention? McNamara asked.

Another essential element of HEA 1359 is the requirement to use risk assessment and detention screening tools to determine the placement that minors need based on their circumstances and mental health status.

For example, a minor might be better served by having family intervention rather than being placed in a detention center.

“It’s probably not the best place for the juvenile,” McNamara said of the latter. “So that will give local government a lot more insight into what to do with particular individuals.”

McNamara’s HEA 1359 also requires a suicide awareness screening tool. The lawmaker, who is principal of Evansville’s first high school Vanderburgh School Corp., said the children struggled with mental health issues, as did dozens of Hoosier adults behind bars.

“Suicide is one, and anxiety,” she said. “Our current system is doing the best it can, but we’re still in the same situation — lack of resources, lack of specialties. And I think that’s why these screening tools are exceptionally important.

Evolutionary approach to mental health

In her public advocacy work with Hoosier youth, Karozos said she’s seen how Indiana’s approach to the safety and welfare of juvenile offenders has improved over the past decade. .

“In particular, the focus is more on treatment than punishment,” Karozos noted. “It’s amazing how much better we understand adolescent development. »

She also highlighted the work of the Indiana Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, lawsuits resulting from investigations into juvenile facilities, and DOC efforts to identify risks.

IDOC’s Youth Services Division said it has reviewed several policies impacting the areas of education, mental health, restraint, use of force and separation in recent years. years.

“…(T)these new policies have been implemented at all of our youth facilities,” DOC communications manager Annie Goeller said in an emailed statement to Indiana Lawyer. “Our current approach is to ensure that young people are seen promptly upon admission and assessed for all services and programs, including mental health, and that these services continue throughout their stay at a DOC facility.”

Among them is a 2016 policy designated for the “use of separation” for minors as a “cooling off” period before returning them to the general population. This DOC policy also includes “therapeutic isolation” as an option for minors “whose behavior warrants a more restrictive environment.” The policy indicates that the isolation can last several days.

“Young people placed in therapeutic isolation because they pose a threat to themselves should be under continuous individual observation until assessed by a mental health professional,” the policy states.

Joel Wieneke of the Indiana Public Defender Council said that while IDOC has begun the process of passing new administrative rules to govern conditions in juvenile detention centers, he has spoken to young Hoosier detainees who claim that solitary confinement is still ongoing.

One of the ways Wieneke has seen Indiana address the mental health and safety needs of its juvenile offenders is through JDAI, Indiana’s model for improving the justice system for juveniles. youth.

Indiana JDAI Director Nancy Wever said there is no end goal to improving Indiana’s juvenile justice system. Rather, it is an ongoing effort to build a fair youth justice system.

“And it’s going to take a while to get there,” Wever said.

Brandon Randall

Brandon Randall, director of engagement at VOICES Corp. in Indianapolis, said he has seen strategies such as mental health care and first aid for young people, trauma-informed care and healing-focused engagement become more common.

“Whereas before, I think we were really downplaying the experiences of young people and not having these conversations,” Randall said. “And I think that’s starting to change. But this, you know, is going to take a collective sense of practice and implementation.

Improvement areas

Regarding the state’s approach to mental health in the juvenile justice system, McNamara said she believes Indiana suffers from the same problem as the rest of the nation – lack of resources. .

“There just aren’t enough social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists,” she said. “And certainly in Indiana there aren’t enough people who have a specialty with minors when it comes to mental health.”

HEA 1359 does two things in an attempt to address these concerns: provide mental health services via telehealth to minors so they don’t have to be sent to the DOC to receive them, and strengthen the behavioral health services of the State in areas of the state where mental health services are scarce.

Wieneke said he was most concerned about shifting control of behavioral health treatment resources to Indiana counties. If done correctly, he said it could improve access to appropriate programs, but could also create a burden that some counties aren’t equipped to handle.

“I’m not sure that shifting financial resources to county-controlled grant opportunities actually expands the availability of treatment opportunities,” he said. “Time will tell us.”•

About Stephen Ewing

Check Also

US health task force calls for routine screening for anxiety in adults

In a nod to the country’s pressing mental health crisis, an influential group of medical …