Court program to target minors’ mental health

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As published in the Denton Record-Chronicle, August 23, 2016

Denton County commissioners voted in favor of establishing of a mental health court for juveniles Tuesday.

The juvenile mental health court, which will be known as Soar, will allow juveniles between ages 10-17 who are at risk of being removed from their homes because of mental health issues to receive intensive treatment while staying in their homes. The program will also also address family issues contributing to the child’s disorder.

Soar could begin as early as Nov. 1, pending Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval, according to county officials. It would operate as part of Denton County Court at Law No. 1’s weekly routine and be funded with a discretionary state aid grant from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

How it works

A detention officer, a defense attorney or others who identify a child with mental health issues could refer the child for the juvenile mental health court, according to Judge Kimberly McCary, the presiding judge for the county’s juvenile court, County Court at Law No. 1.

The treatment plan for the child would also include a treatment team — including the child’s family members, a probation officer or someone who could best help them succeed, along with the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney.

While the child is still punished for wrongdoing, the child and their entire family also has an opportunity to receive treatment and rehabilitation services, McCary said.

The child will have more contact with a probation officer, more screenings and diagnostics to get to the root of the mental health disorder, more programming and court intervention, she said.

“We’re pretty excited about this,” McCary said. “This is going to help on so many levels.

“We want good outcomes, and I think kids have better outcomes if we treat them in the home.”

How it will help

Last year, more than 50 percent of juvenile offenders had a mental health disorder and “were placed at a higher cost of care than their counterparts without diagnosed mental health disorders,” according to Commissioners Court documents.

Typically, it costs more than $200 per day for the county to place a juvenile with a mental health disorder in treatment, and some treatment programs are outside the county. County officials anticipate that the juvenile mental health court will assist in significantly reducing treatment costs to as low as $30 daily, include family members in the juvenile’s treatment process and lower recidivism rates for child offenders.

Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of probation services at juvenile probation, said the court is designed to stabilize children, allowing them to build skills and transition. It allows children to stay in their community and along with their families work out their issues.

“It gets them on an even keel,” she said. “It gives the kids more accountability. It includes the family in treatment, giving them a greater chance to succeed.

“It’s a win-win, I think.”

The intensive treatment program will last six months and requires buy-in from the child’s entire family, county officials said. Because it’s so intensive, Prillwitz said she assumes the program could assist about 20 children annually.

Jamie Beck, first assistant district attorney for Denton County, said the treatment court model is a good way of resolving traditional criminal offenses.

“This, in the appropriate cases for the appropriate offenders — it will not only have a punishment aspect but a rehabilitative and treatment aspect as well,” she said.

The state mandates that the county receive a commissioners court’s approval to establish a juvenile mental health court.

Denton County was one of two agencies to receive a four-year discretionary state aid grant from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. The award, which will distribute $193,839 in fiscal year 2017; $200,661 in fiscal year 2018, $207,824 in fiscal year 2019 and $215,345 in fiscal year 2020 will support two positions, assessments and counseling services, according to county officials.

“Unfortunately, more and more of these kids are showing up with mental health issues, so this will help us address that problem,” said County Judge Mary Horn. “The state only provides limited grant funding possibilities, so I’m glad that we were successful to get it … and be granted the funds. It goes a long way to help these kids.”