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Report: More Funding Needed for Mental Health in Juvenile Facilities

A Texas Criminal Justice Coalition report says girls in the juvenile justice system don't get adequate counseling for past trauma. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department, however, takes issue with some of the report's conclusions.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
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State juvenile facilities for girls are failing to provide adequate mental health support for victims of trauma, according to a report released Wednesday by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

To address such needs, the coalition recommends implementing more "trauma-informed programs" and increasing funding for programs that “keep youth in their home counties.”

In July, the coalition interviewed about 50 girls housed at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood, Texas, where all of the approximately 100 girls incarcerated statewide are housed. “In general, because there are so many more boys in the system, a lot of things are more geared towards the male population,” said Benet Magnuson, a policy attorney with the group. He said that for many girls in juvenile facilities, “there’s never been an effective intervention for them up to this point.”

“Half of the girls we surveyed at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex told us that their time in county juvenile facilities either did not help or actually did more harm than good for dealing with their past trauma,” wrote Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the organization, in a letter accompanying the findings. Many girls in the juvenile justice system are victims of domestic abuse, she explained, and need counseling and other forms of programming to make sure they don’t wind up back in the correctional system.

Michael Griffiths, head of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, said he was frustrated with the coalition's report.

He said that in his experiences at the Ron Jackson facility, girls housed there "spoke proudly" of the care they received. "I don't think it's been represented what good things are happening," he said.

Magnuson said he thinks the issues raised in the report go back to the system-wide abuses that came to a head in 2007 with reports of sexual and physical abuse at the state’s juvenile facilities. “You had thousands of kids very isolated,” Magnuson said, “and whenever you have people as vulnerable as kids isolated, you're going to have abuses.”

While Magnuson and his colleagues say the state has come a long way since then, they are asking lawmakers and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to implement more programs at county and state facilities that deal with the impact of trauma.

They’re also recommending an expansion of staff training programs and an increase in the time allowed for incarcerated girls to talk to family members by phone every week. But the long-term goal, they say, is to move more juveniles to county facilities, which would allow them to visit with family members more often.

But Griffiths says the Jackson facility allows for phone calls to family members as many as four times a week, and that the 100 girls at this facility should be seen in the context of the 19,427 girls that were referred last year to probation departments. 

"There is a perception that the totality of our programs have issues," Griffiths said, "and that's just not the case." He added that the Jackson facility has six highly trained mental health staff members, that "30 percent of those girls are right now in trauma therapy" and that everyone, when they arrive at the facility, is "screened extensively for trauma-related behavior."

While expressing frustration with the report, Griffiths said that his staff is working to further improve mental health among girls in the juvenile system. In a legislative appropriations request released in August, his department notes that “closing two to three secure institutions and one halfway house would preserve funding for establishing smaller, more effective county treatment programs for most youth offenders.”

The request also asks for $15.2 million for juvenile probation departments to “address a significant gap in mental health services to juveniles under their jurisdiction.” Last week, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, in response to another report calling for more funding, said it’s a “no-brainer” to possibly expand county programs that are proven to be working.

“The goal now is how to get those resources to girls before they end up in a state facility,” Magnuson said. Griffiths agreed, but said his department is already working on it and that it has sent staff to work in county facilities. "This representation that the youth in the counties aren't getting this care," he said, "I think that's an overgeneralization."

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