WASHINGTON – Thousands of mentally ill youths are unnecessarily put in juvenile detention centers to await mental health treatment (search), a House committee reported Wednesday.
Centers usually are not equipped to treat mental illness, and in some cases the youths have not been charged with a crime, said the report by the Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee.
"The use of juvenile detention facilities to house youth waiting for community mental health services is widespread and a serious national problem," said the report, which found that two-thirds of juvenile detention facilities hold youths who are waiting for mental health treatment.
"This misuse of detention centers as holding areas for mental health treatment is unfair to youth, undermines their health, disrupts the function of detention centers and is costly to society."
The report, which its authors said was the first national study of its kind, was prepared at the request of California Rep. Henry Waxman (search), the House Government Reform Committee's top Democrat, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine (search), chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
"Thousands of youth who are in need of community mental health services are stuck in jail until these services become available," Waxman said in a statement. "This is deplorable. Congress must ensure that our children have access to the mental health care that they need."
Collins scheduled a hearing on the issue Wednesday where Waxman was testifying along with experts on mental health law, youth behavior and juvenile detention.
The report identified 698 juvenile detention facilities in the United States, defined as correctional facilities holding people age 21 and younger awaiting charges or trial or recently tried. Seventy-five percent of the facilities, or 524, responded to the survey, including facilities from every state but New Hampshire. The survey covered six months, Jan. 1, 2003, to June 30, 2003.
The report did not attempt to determine why so many youths who needed mental health treatment were being put in juvenile detention but said administrators blamed the lack of other treatment facilities.
One detention center administrator from Louisiana wrote, "We appear to be warehousing youths with mental illnesses due to lack of mental health services."
Among the report's findings:
—In 33 states, mentally ill youths were being held in detention centers with no charges against them.
—Over the six-month period of the study, nearly 15,000 youths spent time in juvenile detention while they waited for mental health help. Nearly 2,000 youths are in detention waiting for mental health services every night, representing about 7 percent of all juveniles being held.
—Youths who are waiting for mental health treatment stay in detention facilities longer than other detainees. They average 23.4 days in detention, compared with an average of 17.2 days for all detainees.
—One detention facility reported holding a 7-year-old child who was awaiting mental health treatment, while 117 facilities were holding children 10 years old and younger.
—Juvenile detention facilities spend about $100 million each year to house youths who are waiting for community health services.