Mental health an issues among D.C.'s young offenders

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; B5

Many of the young people who are arrested in the District have mental health issues that to go unaddressed by the juvenile justice system, according to a report to be presented Thursday by a group representing local mental health providers.

The study by the D.C. Behavioral Health Association found that despite increased attention to the mental health of children and adolescents in the city, access to social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists appears to lag far behind the need.

But the report said that the fragmented structure of the juvenile justice system, which spans several entities and the executive and judicial branches of the D.C. government, made it difficult to paint a clear and complete picture of the needs.

Concerns about mental health care for juveniles are among a number of issues likely to be aired Thursday when the D.C. Council holds a hearing on the District's juvenile justice agency.

It is the first hearing on the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty shook up the agency in July, ousting then-Director Marc A. Schindler, who had fallen out of favor with Attorney General Peter Nickles.

With Fenty's loss last week in the Democratic mayoral primary to Council Chairman Vincent Gray, the hearing Thursday promises to be not just a discussion of the current state of DYRS but a window into what its future would be under a Gray administration.

At least two dozen advocates and experts have signed up to testify at the hearing, which begins at 11 a.m. at the Wilson Building, and they will no doubt be trying to shape the agency's priorities for not only the next few months but the next few years.

Robert Hildum, who was the city's chief juvenile prosecutor before being tapped by Fenty to take over DYRS in July, is to testify about a host of issues, including mental health.

In an interview Wednesday, he said that that the agency wasn't doing enough on mental health.

Juveniles who are housed in the department's two detention centers generally receive good mental health care, Hildum said. But services for the hundreds of juveniles who are supervised by DYRS in the community, often after a stay in a detention facility, are a different story. "I think we're doing a superb job in the facilities, but we really need to make sure it follows them out the door," Hildum said.

Intensive individual and family therapy programs have been "underutilized," Hildum said, and instead, some juveniles who might have benefited from such interventions ended up in residential treatment facilities outside of the city. "I don't think the services have been matched up as well as they should be," Hildum said.

At least four mayoral agencies, not to mention a long list of private providers, have a hand in serving the mental health needs of the city's most troubled youths. Along with DYRS, the Department of Mental Health, the Child and Family Services Agency, and the Department of Health Care Finance, which administers Medicaid, each has a role, and that has made coordination essential - and sometimes elusive.

D.C. Superior Court's juvenile probation agency, which is called Court Social Services and supervises about 1,700 young offenders, is yet another key actor in the juvenile system. The report has extremely limited data about Court Social Services.

Chief Judge Lee F. Satterfield said Wednesday that the court has a number of mental health programs for juveniles and is constantly working to improve services for the juveniles under its supervision.

Satterfield, who said he learned of the report Wednesday, said he has asked staff to pull together whatever information the court has to address the concerns raised.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company