County Overhauls Mental Screenings for Juveniles

Any offender entering the Harris County Juvenile Justice System will now receive a comprehensive mental health evaluation. Psychological screenings will help identify youths who have serious mental or substance abuse issues before they cycle through the justice system. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports.

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There aren't any hard numbers for Harris County, but Mental Health Association Executive Director Betsy Schwartz estimates around 60 percent of youths in the juvenile system have a mental health or substance abuse problem. The reason there's no hard number is the current system relies heavily on the child's own interpretation of his or her health.

"The screening that's actually required by state law is a test that is self-administered. The youth fills it out him- or herself on a computer. And often, as you can imagine, they're filling it out when they're not in the best of moods and so oftentimes they're just randomly filling it out."

But Harris County, in cooperation with the MHA, is overhauling the screening process. Rebecca DeCamara is the project director for the new method, referred to as Operation Redirect. She says gone is the system of self-assessment and in its place are mental health clinicians who will evaluate every child.

"Based on this initial screening, those children who are really sending up red flags as far as having much more involved or severe problems, those children will be referred on for a more in-depth evaluation."

Over the past few weeks, clinicians have already screened 123. One hundred ten of them were found to need additional mental health or substance abuse help. The evaluations become court documents and the presiding judge is able to review them when deciding the case. Harris County's Juvenile Probation Department Executive Director Harvey Hetzel says that means a judge could require mental health treatment as part of the probation assignment. Judges could also tighten or loosen their sentence based on the diagnosis.

"With all of these kids coming in, we will have very precise data and we'll have data on the types of issues that these kids are presenting with. Once you've got that, hopefully we will be able to go to the legislature to expand upon the services that are available. And most importantly, hopefully we will have a very good track record with these youth that we won't see them back in our system. And we will prove that, even though it's a little bit more involved and maybe a little bit more money on the front end, at the back end we're saving a tremendous amount of money and a lot of resources and a lot of heartache."

Operation Redirect's goal is to treat and rehabilitate youths who have serious mental illnesses, thereby allowing the juvenile justice system to focus resources on delinquent and criminal youths who truly don't need mental health treatment. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio.

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