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Mental Health Court Offers New Options

The innovative Los Angeles County program examines issues bigger than guilt when dealing with troubled juvenile offenders.


As judicial experiments go, it is modest in size, especially in California, where criminal justice measures can sweep up thousands of offenders virtually overnight.

Still, a Los Angeles County attempt to rescue troubled teenagers from criminal activity has the potential to transform how the nation's largest juvenile justice system treats youths with mental illness.

In a courtroom next to the crowded Eastlake Juvenile Hall, Superior Court Judge Clifford L. Klein presides over what is believed to be the first juvenile mental health court in the country.

The brainchild of mental health advocates, the court is distinct from the dozens of others handling juvenile cases in Los Angeles County because it focuses only on youths with diagnosed mental health problems. The judge orders their treatment and monitoring to minimize their chances of additional run-ins with the law.

"It is one thing to talk about guilt or innocence," said Deputy Public Defender Nancy Ramseyer. "Here we are looking at bigger issues, like why a kid got involved in the system and how we can prevent it from happening again."

Like others assigned to the court, Ramseyer has years of experience in the field of juvenile delinquency. She began working with youths in the 1980s.

"It is completely different now. We didn't have all these kids with mental health issues," she said. "Maybe it is better diagnosis. Maybe it is because so many kids were born to families who couldn't care for them and they wound up in the foster care system" without adequate mental health care.

Whatever the reasons, Los Angeles County authorities say a Probation Department survey last year found that a staggering 40% of youths held at juvenile halls suffered significant mental health problems. Consider that the county's three high-security juvenile halls house about 2,000 youths, in addition to the thousands more held at camps or in other facilities, and one begins to see the scope of the problem.

Addressing the problem begins with representatives from various agencies, including the district attorney's office. The group determines which youths might benefit from the court's intervention. Officials have decided that in the first year, they will limit the caseload to about three dozen youths.

Eligibility is based on criteria that include a diagnosed mental disorder or developmental disability and the minor's competence to communicate with an attorney. Also, a youth's record cannot be too violent or the latest crime too serious.

Complicated Problems Require Expertise

"The problems that cause these kids to behave the way they do are very complicated," said Michael Malkin, director of the Juvenile Court's mental health services. "And for anyone to have an impact on that behavior requires a lot of human effort by people who know what they are doing."

Klein said many of the youths sent to his court have not done well at juvenile halls or other facilities.

That was the case with a 14-year-old boy brought before the court recently.

Hyperactive and diagnosed as mildly retarded, the teenager has long had problems in school, principally with reading. "He wasn't really doing as well as the other kids," said his mother, Gwen.

His learning disabilities fueled the boy's frustration, his mother said, noting that in a pre-kindergarten class, he was suspended for misbehaving. On the streets, he has been arrested for property crimes such as stealing a bicycle.

Then, in the early morning hours of Sept. 29, he was picked up joy riding not far from the family's South Bay apartment.

Under routine circumstances, officials said, he probably would have been sent back to a juvenile hall without any individual focus on his disabilities.

But on Oct. 30, about a month into the new juvenile mental health experiment, a judge in Inglewood referred the youth's case to Klein's courtroom. And in late December, after a series of evaluations, the teenager was released to the custody of his mother with an array of court-ordered services.

Beginning this week, he will attend a small special education school that agreed to accept him after being impressed both by his interest in learning and his mother's commitment. For her son's interview appointment, Gwen, though sick with the flu, took three buses to get to and from the school.

"We really admire that," Klein said. "That's quite a commitment."

In addition to his specialized classroom instruction, the teenager will receive after-school supervision that includes homework and activities. Apart from schooling, he will undergo an evaluation at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute and get regular counseling.

His mother, meanwhile, will receive services including weekend respite care so she can shop or run errands.

The county program also carries some restrictions.

For example, from the time he returns home until he goes back to school, the teenager will be required to wear an electronic monitoring device that will alert authorities if he leaves the apartment.

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