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Kids With Mental Health Diagnoses Get Caught In Juvenile Justice System


In September, Wyoming Department of Family Services (DFS) Director Korin Schmidt convened stakeholders in the juvenile justice system to discuss high-needs kids with mental health diagnoses and disabilities who end up in juvenile detention centers.

There are just two psychiatric residential treatment centers for juveniles in the state: St. Joseph's Children's Home in Torrington and the Wyoming Behavioral Institute in Casper. When those facilities reach capacity it creates the problem Schmidt is working to prevent. If kids pose a threat to themselves or public safety, then juvenile detention centers end up housing them until space becomes available at a facility that can offer appropriate care. Sometimes that even means sending kids out of state.

Craig Fisgus, a project director for the nonprofit Volunteers of America, detailed this in a letter to Director Schmidt that he provided to Wyoming Public Radio.

"These juveniles spent a significant amount of time in secure detention while the system struggled to identify options, and these extended placements were not beneficial for detention staff or, of greatest importance, for the juvenile," Fisgus wrote.

He's working with DFS and juvenile detention center staff to develop protocol to get kids out of detention and into appropriate care faster.

Margaret Welch, a therapist and social worker with Uplift Wyoming, a mental health advocacy organization, said the state's sparse mental health resources also mean that early interventions that could help prevent the need for detention are often not available to kids and families in crisis.

"I find kids that are acting out - the family can't manage them. And there's no real crisis center," said Welch. "So, what's going to happen then is that the child will have the potential to get caught up in the system."

Time in a detention center isn't only traumatic for the individuals that are involved - often, their families experience the process alongside them.

"Secondary trauma is no joke," said Welch. "Then the family's hands are tied and there's no resources."

Andi Summerville, the Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, provided examples of different types of stressors.

"Any type of interaction that the adolescent may have with the criminal justice system, or just a mental health or substance issue, always impacts the family," said Summerville. "It can be from a variety of angles; it can be from the time it takes to provide the care, it can be around logistics, it can be around financial stress… It can be a very stressful situation for the entire family."

There's also concern about adults in crisis ending up in the state's county jails. This week, WyoFile reported that Albany County Sheriff Dave O'Malley wrote an open letter expressing concern about adults detained for months at a time when they should be somewhere more suitable to their needs, like the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston. Mirroring the circumstances for juveniles in the state, there's a shortage of psychiatric care for adults.

What mental health resources already exist might be at risk due to the newest round of budget cuts in the state. Though Governor Gordon's administration has said that they are avoiding taking from mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, Deputy Director of the Wyoming Department of Health Stefan Johannsen said that even indirect cuts could affect those resources.

Originally from South Dakota, Eda Uzunlar is a junior at Yale University majoring in Global Affairs and studying as an Education Studies Scholar. Her focuses are education equality in conflict zones, education as diplomacy, and radio and education journalism. At Yale, she is the Station Manager and Vice President of the Yale Broadcasting Company (WYBC) as well as the Vice President of the Yale International Relations Association. When not attached to her computer doing work for the above, she enjoys working at her local greenhouse and helping her friends with their own audio adventures. She is incredibly excited to be working at Wyoming Public Radio!
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