Monterey Bay Justice Project

Treating incarcerated youth with mental illness is complex

By D’Quan Stewart

When someone breaks the law, they have to suffer the consequences. For most, that includes being stripped of their rights and being incarcerated. For the lone 12 year old locked up at the Wellington M. Smith Jr. Juvenile Hall in Salinas, one can imagine the mental state he is in.

The Monterey County Health Department is collaborating with the juvenile hall to help get the incarcerated youth the proper support. Gretchen Beddingfield, a Psychiatric Social Worker II for the Natividad Health Center, is a frequent visitor at the juvenile hall.

“[I visit the youth] five days a week,” said Beddingfield. “My position is unique. In Monterey County, I work in the juvenile hall. If kids have emotional issues such as suicide or they’re self-harming, or there’s a risk they’re going to harm others and they’re put on watch. I have to go talk to them to decide if they should stay on watch or if they can be released [from watch].”

The duration of the incarceration is based on the crime committed by each youth. Some stays in juvenile hall could last 20 days, while others could last a year. Regardless of the length of stay, mental health services are offered to youth entering the facility.

“If there was a therapist in the community that was working with the kid and that kid winds up in custody, they come in and provide services,”said Jose Ramirez, division director at Juvenile Hall for the Monterey County Probation Department. “They usually come in and check to see how they are doing. That happens a lot.”

Officials try to have therapists come in after school to visit the youth. However, they do sometimes need to come in early, but every effort is made not to disrupt the student’s class time, said Ramirez.

Beddingfield believes the lack of parental guidance and the family background of the incarcerated youth are the reason they are behind bars.

“To me, you don’t lock kids up because they’ve had a crappy life or their mom is doing drugs or they’ve been abused,” said Beddingfield. She feels we should instead offer them assistance.

As a former family therapist, the social worker Beddingfield said there are distinct benefits of having structure within probation system and family.

A therapy room in the Monterey County Juvenile Hall.

“Many times, probation is the parent for the child. They do have to be the ones who give those consequences because the parent isn’t able, or doesn’t know, or hasn’t been given those skills,” she said.

Many of the young people in juvenile hall are awaiting placement in the Monterey County Youth Center. Placement [at the Youth Center] means the youth will receive educational and rehabilitation opportunities.

“Many times, probation is the parent for the child. They do have to be the ones who give those consequences because the parent isn’t able, or doesn’t know, or hasn’t been given those skills.”

In some cases, placement could be worse than juvenile hall for youth based on making the new adjustment to their lives, according to some officials. Instead of getting released back to their homes, they are sent away to a different home as a form of recovery.

Prior to going to placement, youth are often given therapeutic treatment so they are mentally prepared for that environment. When they get released from juvenile hall, Beddingfield does what she can to give them the outside help they need.

“Let’s say I’m trying to link a kid who doesn’t have therapy yet, so I want to make sure he or she has services as soon as they get released. Then I would engage the parents to come in here and do all the paperwork with me prior to the child being released so the child can have services ready to go,” she said.

Chryl Williams, Behavioral Health Unit supervisor at the Natividad Health Center said that family communication with the therapists at juvenile hall happens frequently to note the progress of the youth.

“If they are in the facility and they have a therapist, then yes we have the therapist contact their families,” said Williams. “If they’re coming in to outpatient, we absolutely believe that family therapy and family involvement is important to the success of their child.”

But, not everyone thinks the Youth Center is the best option for incarcerated youth who suffer from mental illness.

Williams believes that being placed in a psychiatric hospital where they can get the proper treatment is better for youth than being in placement, despite the process being tough.

“Finding a psychiatric hospital for the juveniles is hard because there isn't one in this county,” said Williams. “If we are looking at hospitalization for the youth or psychiatric stability, it's difficult. And when they're in juvenile hall, it's even harder because the parent isn't in custody [of the child] at that time.

“A lot of the hospitals can choose whether they want to take the child or not - once you're in juvenile hall, they stop looking for a psychiatric bed for you.”

Beddingfield stressed the importance of meeting with parents and trying to get to the root cause of behavioral issues.

“Is it [meeting with parents] an important piece? Absolutely. Do I think sending kids away to placement is a good idea? No. You’re not dealing with the problems in the community. You’re not dealing with the problems in the home. That’s the thing that counties are looking at a little bit more because they’re not just sending kids to placement. They’re trying to do wrap services and intensive therapy services before just sending them away to placement for eight months to a year,” she said.