Children in Crisis: Mental Health America of Southeast Texas, Leadership Beaumont team up to support needs of most vulnerable population

The Behavioral & Mental Health Consortium of Southeast Texas, sponsored by Mental Health America of Southeast Texas (MHA of Southeast Texas) and Leadership Beaumont, met Thursday, March 1, at Beaumont’s Event Centre to focus on “Supporting the Mental Health Needs of Our Most Vulnerable Population.”

Recognizing that youthful crime is frequently the result of unrecognized and untreated mental health issues, the consortium sought to identify mental health needs in youth and offer solutions for therapeutic intervention before the youth end up in the penal system. Too often, rather than identifying and addressing the underlying causes leading to delinquent behavior, juvenile detention becomes a revolving door leading to repeat offenses and a pathway to adult incarceration, often lasting a lifetime.

Kim Phelan, a local attorney who represents children in CPS and is also president of MHA of Southeast Texas, introduced Deputy Tommy Smith, Jefferson County mental health liaison officer for Spindletop Center’s ASAP (Assist, Stabilize and Prevent) program. Smith provided the following statistics: 70 percent of youth in contact with the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder; over 60 percent of them also have a substance abuse disorder; while 80 percent of children involved with child welfare have emotional or behavioral disorders, developmental delays, or substance abuse problems requiring behavioral health intervention. Smith emphasized that since federal and state mental health funding have suffered drastic cuts over the past decade, law enforcement has now more than ever become the first responders for those suffering mental health crises, and consequently, those most needing mental health intervention face incarceration instead.

Phelan explained, “We are here because our children are in crisis, struggling with undiagnosed mental health conditions and repeated traumas, which often result in delinquent behaviors. Without positive support systems and early intervention, these children easily find their way into the criminal justice system. The problem is huge and answers are complicated, often leaving us feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. However, we believe in the power of relationships, and we know that we as a community can create change. Help us change the trajectory of these children’s lives today by working together to support our most vulnerable youth.”

Phelan spoke further about the unaddressed mental health crisis that is paving the cradle-to-prison pathway. She said that working together to identify youth mental health issues and intervening with coordinated mental health resources can break the downward cycle and create real change. While Southeast Texas already has abundant and diverse mental health resources, she stated that “collaboration, communication and coordination” become key to the successful utilization of these resources. “Through the power of relationships, we can connect with children in need and save lives,” she emphasized.

Guest speaker Lindsey Linder, policy attorney with the non-profit Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC) in Austin, spoke about “What’s Happening To Our Kids Across The State of Texas?” An advocate for change, Linder addressed the problem of youth offenders getting pushed into the adult penal system. TCJC is advocating several policies, including raising the age of criminal responsibility from 17 to 18, along with limiting the frequency of transferring youth into the adult system (where youth are more likely to be sexually abused, or assaulted). TCJC is also advocating its Second Look, a policy that would require the parole board to consider more issues to determine youth parole eligibility and to be more lenient with younger offenders.

“Only 4 percent of youth committed to the adult system are ever paroled,” she explained.

A third policy proposal would require assessing mental health needs of young offenders (82 percent of youth offenders have mental health issues) and overhauling strategies to address those needs.

“The criminal justice system has become the de facto mental health system,” she said, “with law enforcement as the first responders. So many of these youthful crimes and incarcerations would be preventable if we provided mental health interventions and a safety net for those youth at high risk. TCJC’s focus is on finding ways to prevent at-risk youth from ever escalating into the adult criminal justice system in the first place.”

Guest Speaker Marcelo “Mo” Molfino, assistant chief of criminal investigators with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, spoke of “Problems Facing Our Youth in Southeast Texas.”

“Handcuffs won’t solve the problem,” Molfino said. “By the time the police have arrived, it’s too late because these kids have already fallen through the cracks. Putting someone with mental health needs into a detention facility is not a deterrent or an intervention, but becomes a catalyst for more crime. We are fortunate to have organizations like IEA-Inspire, Encourage, Achieve; Communities In Schools and Jefferson County Juvenile Probation as boots on the ground to address the problems of at-risk youth in our community and provide healthy alternatives to committing crimes and repeat offenses. But we need to unify if we are going to make a real difference in our community. We have a daunting task ahead.”

Addiction Specialist Madeline Alford spoke on “Prevention and Early Intervention,” along with the early warning signs of mental illness. She referenced the following very alarming statistics: each year 175,000 Texas children suffer from severe mental health needs. Of those, 50 percent will drop out of high school and face double the risk of substance use as compared to children without such needs. One half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24; nearly one in seven Texas high school students makes a suicide plan.

“This generation has the largest mental health crisis ever and we simply don’t have enough mental health specialists to address the needs,” Alford explained. “It’s important to remove the stigma from mental health and counseling and recognize that the brain is an organ, just like the heart or intestines, and needs to be treated for medical problems. Mental health is not a choice or a moral failure, but a failure to identify the need and to provide appropriate resources. Prison doesn’t help and is not an answer. It’s our responsibility to become better informed, better educated people and parents. We have to know more to be able to do more,” she said.

Phelan added, “As an attorney I see many of the same kids in the juvenile justice system that are in the care of Child Protective Services. Thirty-two percent of youth in detention have a learning disability and almost all are considered at-risk. It’s hard for me to be hard on them knowing they don’t have a support system.”

Family Court Judge Randy Shelton with Jefferson County’s 279th District Court spoke about “A Time For Action,” stating, “Eight years ago we began Drug Court at Minnie Rogers Juvenile Detention Center, but with mixed results. Because substance abuse and detention are complicated by family problems and mental health, we recently began a Juvenile Mental Health Court. The biggest challenge we have faced so far is that we have a lot of resources, but a lack of coordination of resources. This specialty court is designed to provide therapeutic jurisprudence by getting legal and social work agencies to work together, and for once, we hope to make it work.”

Shelton also said the second part of prevention, early intervention and reduced recidivism focuses on working with kids’ families. “Since most of the kids in foster care and the juvenile system are from the same pool of kids, we want to start an Adult Diversion Program,” he stated. “Because it doesn’t make sense to send at-risk kids back into the same family environments that got them into trouble in the first place — many parents need more help than their kids — we need to take a new approach and tackle this problem at the source.”

At the conclusion of the program, Phelan introduced “A Call To Action” exercise. Agency representatives from Save The Children, Child Protective Services, Spindletop Center’s First Steps ECI (Early Childhood Intervention program), Spindletop Center’s Crisis Services, Boys’ Haven of Beaumont, IEA-Inspire, Encourage, Achieve, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and Family Services of Southeast Texas came to the podium to provide a one-minute explanation of their services, along with suggestions for how community members can get involved and offer support.

Other programs represented at the Mental Health Fair included: Mental Health America of Greater Houston; the Samaritan Counseling Center of Southeast Texas; Communities In Schools of Southeast Texas; Rape & Suicide Crisis of Southeast Texas, Inc.; Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas Behavioral Health Center; Boys and Girls Club; and the Arc of Greater Beaumont.

“What will you do to help our children?” Phelan asked. “The Mental Health America National organization identifies three prongs for action: First: Motivating providers to work together and share incentives to pay for prevention and early intervention. Second: Expand coverage of preventative care in health insurance, and Third: Engaging Communities in prevention and early intervention with community-based coalitions. Although sometimes it feels hopeless and there is no simple answer, the best answer begins with collaboration of community and regional resources. By continuing the conversation we can slowly, but surely, begin to make strides,” she said.

— Kathie Platt

 

Photo by Kevin King - “We  are  here because our children are in crisis, struggling with undiagnosed mental health conditions and repeated traumas, which often result in delinquent behaviors. Without positive support systems and early intervention, these children easily find their way into the criminal justice system. The problem is huge and answers are complicated, often leaving us feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. However, we believe in the power of relationships, and we know that we as a community can create change. Help us change the trajectory of these children’s lives today by working together to support our most vulnerable youth.”

— Kim Phelan, president,  Mental Health America of Southeast Texas

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