For most of this year, an interagency task force has been reviewing how the Ohio justice system handles juveniles who suffer from mental illnesses or serious emotional disturbances. The panel released its report this week, and the findings are depressingly familiar.
The panel found a significant percentage of youth have mental and behavioral health needs that are not met because communities lack the resources to provide early identification and the necessary continuum of care. The result is, a disproportionate number of youth with undiagnosed and untreated mental and emotional problems is involved in the juvenile justice system, which, the report states, “is not the optimal venue to deliver mental health treatment services to youth.”
In a survey by the Children’s Law Center in 2010, stakeholder groups in juvenile justice identified mental health services “as the second most scarce, yet most needed, resource after funding.” Two years earlier, the stipulation settling a federal class-action lawsuit directed the Ohio Department of Youth Services, among other steps, to implement a “comprehensive plan for a continuum-of-care mental health system that is attentive to the distinctive nature of adolescent cognitive, intellectual, emotional, social, and moral development.”
The extent of the challenge involved is evident in the profile of the youth in the state institution. As the task force indicates, more than half of the males and almost all of the females are on the department’s mental health caseload. Many have multiple, long-term disorders. About 75 percent have a diagnosed substance abuse disorder. More than half need special education.
The report makes clear the current system, in local communities and in the justice system, is far from adequate to address the multiple mental and behavioral health needs of young people. Broadly, the report cites “a lack of strategic direction, planning and policy development” and “information silos” among the various departments and agencies, including school systems, that touch the lives of mentally and emotionally troubled youth.
Where community approaches and interventions have proved successful, “there is no formal plan to bring those interventions or approaches to scale.” The panel also notes the limited funding for services and a sharp decline in the availability of inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services.
Read the report, plus the several recommendations, and the message rings loudly: It is long past time for Ohio to develop an effective network for collaboration across state departments, social service agencies, families and school systems that will enable the state to provide sound and seamless care for such children with mental illnesses and serious emotional disorders.