Mentally Ill Teens in Lockup

By Karen Grau
July 20, 2010 9:05 P.M. EDT 

Jacob was 4 when his father left him out in the snow for no apparent reason other than he felt his boy needed to be punished. Following his father’s arrest for child abuse, Jacob was left in the care of his mother. A few years later, that same mom was incarcerated for stabbing her second husband in the back. The ensuing 15 years for little Jacob became a sad and wrenching ordeal of placement facilities and foster homes, where eventually, he was accused of attacking a foster sibling. That landed Jacob in juvenile prison…a place he called home for the next five years. Read more and watch a video about Jacob "below the fold"...

We didn’t intend to meet Jacob during our time filming in juvenile prison, but when a “Signal 10” is called and guards sprint to help an officer in need, there’s no way not to swing our cameras in that direction. And that’s where we found Jacob, pacing his time-out cell like a wild, caged animal, pulling out chunks of his hair and banging his head against the wall. We soon learned this near-20 year old had the IQ of a little boy, was a self-mutilator and suffered from PTSD and a host of other acronym-laden mental disorders.

After 15 years of doing this work, I have never seen a case quite like Jacob’s. Yet sadly, Jacob is one of tens of thousands of mentally ill juveniles currently locked up for various juvenile offenses – some egregious, some non-violent. This begs the question: what should the juvenile justice system do with kids who suffer from mental illness? Research shows nearly 75% of all juveniles in the system suffer from some sort of diagnosable mental health disorder. Unfortunately, the system is ill-equipped to handle them. Too often, these same kids are kicked out of school, shunned in their local communities and prove to be wildly expensive for financially strapped state budgets. After all, that IS the bottom line: who should ultimately pay for the care, treatment and rehabilitation of mentally ill youth? Do they belong on child welfare rolls even when they commit juvenile offenses, or should they—as they often are—be committed to secure juvenile prisons? Are we, as a public, responsible for kids who never stood much of a chance from day one, or are they, as the kids themselves tell us, simply “throw away” children?

Collectively, whether we choose to admit it or not, kids like Jacob are easy to ignore. They are children caught up in a chaotic game of hopscotch that propels them from child welfare systems to departments of correction. They remain in systems that are closed to the media and the public and their stories are rarely, if ever, told. But they exist. By the thousands. And they are children. All of our children. The longer we choose to ignore the issue of mentally ill at-risk youth, the more we are fooling ourselves that things will ever get better. All kids—especially the mentally ill—deserve better.


Posted on July 20, 2010 .