Unmet mental health needs among youth cause problems with school, family, and community often resulting in the criminalization of mental illness. Between 50 and 90 percent of youth in juvenile detention facilities in California suffer from some form of mental illness. Moreover, a congressional study concluded that about 2,000 youth are incarcerated every day simply because community mental health services are unavailable. One response to this crisis has been the creation of juvenile mental health courts. These courts focus on treatment rather than punishment and represent collaboration between the courts, probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health workers, and civil advocates. Their goal is to divert mentally ill youth from juvenile jails to community-based mental health services.
Juvenile mental health courts provide intensive case management to youth in the juvenile justice system with serious mental illness. Youth needing mental health services and intensive supervision may be referred to the court. Once a juvenile has been accepted into the court, he or she appears before the court for regular reviews so the court stays abreast of progress. This allows juveniles to be commended on their progress, allows challenges or problems to be addressed as they arise, and provides an opportunity for therapists/community mental health treatment agencies to provide input.
Furthermore, the assigned district attorney, public defender, probation officials, mental health care workers, and civil advocates all participate in multi- disciplinary team meetings to screen cases and review progress of the participants. Together, they develop a case management plan that focuses on obtaining and coordinating services necessary for the participant to remain at home, in school, and out of the juvenile detention system.
Civil advocacy is an essential component of the mental health courts, and improves the diversionary potential of the courts. Most fundamentally, civil advocates improve access to resources and services. The National Center for Youth Law’s (NCYL) role in the mental health courts is to coordinate the civil advocacy component and promote potential for diversion and access to mental health services. NCYL, along with other civil advocates have assisted numerous youth in applying for Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)- both critical entitlements for adolescents in need of intensive mental health services. For a child who has no form of health insurance, obtaining Medicaid can mean the difference between being locked up in juvenile hall and being at home with a loving family supported by appropriate community-based health care. By providing better access to public benefits, civil advocates improve treatment outcomes and help stabilize families. NCYL currently works with the juvenile mental health courts in Santa Clara and Alameda Counties.
In 2001,Santa Clara became the first county in the nation to make mental health concerns a priority in dealing with certain juvenile defenders. Since then the success of the Santa Clara County Juvenile Mental Health Court has prompted the creation of mental health courts around the nation.
The Alameda County Juvenile Collaborative Court has just wrapped up its successful pilot year. Out of 13 juveniles enrolled in the court, only one has reoffended and all but one are now back at home.
Members of the Court include:
Alameda County Collaborative Court Brochure