You’ve tried everything. Now you watch helplessly as your troubled teenager starts down the path leading to jail, and you wait for that call from the police. But bad news can be good news. This may be the point when things start to turn around.
“Experts estimate that from 40 percent to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from some form of mental health disorder or an illness – anything from ADHD to full-blown psychosis. About 15 percent to 25 percent have mental illnesses “severe enough to significantly impair their ability to function.”” (see “Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall” at end of this post)
Juvenile crime is considered as serious as adult crime, and juvenile “detention” is full-blown jail, just like jail for adults. Yet there is one critical distinction between teenage and adult justice: teens are given a second chance for a clean record, as well as education and treatment for mental illness or addictions. An adult criminal record is forever a barrier and an embarrassment. It comes up when a former convict applies for a job, a loan, a college degree, military service, a rental, or even a volunteer opportunity.
The juvenile justice system is only partially punitive because society recognizes that the teenage brain is the problem that causes much criminality, whether or not they have a mental disorder or addiction. Enlightened juvenile court judges want their rulings to be “rehabilitative” or “restorative” justice. Enlightened agency directors understand the need for additional support services for learning disabilities, addiction, mental illness, and vocational training.
In the system, teen criminals (or adjudicated youth) are required to participate in consequences and treatment; it’s a “carrot and stick” approach.
- The carrot: The teens attend school and receive training for vocations such as car repair or catering. They participate in positive character-building activities such as training dogs for adoption, building and maintaining hiking trails, or constructing homes for Habitat for Humanity.
- The stick: Teens have a complete lack of freedom, whether in detention or out on probation, intensive monitoring (including random urinalyses), immediate consequences for behavior violations, and physical labor to pay back victims (community work programs).
When a police officer calls to say your son or daughter has been arrested, use this as an opportunity to help your kid. It’s a perfect teachable moment. Not only do you have their attention, you can hand the problem over to the Law to enforce their behavior and treat their disorders or addictions. Your son or daughter cannot refuse—when held or convicted on criminal charges, your child has no rights to anything except humane treatment and an appearance before a judge. You are off the hook. You can step back and relax… and be the Good Guy for once.
How to work with the juvenile justice system:
- Be an active partner with the court. Cooperate fully with the judge, court counselor or therapist, and any attorney, case worker, or probation officer involved.
- Show up for everything: visitation, family therapy, court hearings, and parenting classes even if you don’t think you need them.
- Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with staff. If your teen has a probation officer, do what they tell you, even if it means tattling on your kid.
- Be cooperative with staff, and they will work harder for you and your son or daughter. Support the programs required for your teen, and support your teen when they struggle. Your involvement will someday impress on your child that you’re on their side and care.
- Change your ways. If you’ve been too harsh with your teen in the past, go easy on them now and let him or her see your good side. If you’ve been too easy on them or too protective, demonstrate backbone. Show you know what’s best for them and that you will remain in charge once they are released.
- Stick with your child. If your teenager becomes a Frequent Flyer in the system, it doesn’t mean they are lost. Remember, they have that uncontrollable teenaged brain and need more time and lessons for it to reach maturity.
Once they come home on probation you need to set strict limits on their activities, and work with the probation officer or social worker to enforce them. These are harsh at first, but should be negotiated later when behavior improves, with consultation with the juvenile justice staff.
- Don’t allow them to stay out late ever. Set an early curfew, and report them to their probation officer if they are late. When they get angry about this, explain that you are bound by the law, and that they should discuss their concerns with the officer.
- Ban drugs and alcohol, especially marijuana. Hide prescription drugs and alcohol if you use them. (Marijuana causes brain damage in adolescents; this is not a myth.) You have the right to search their room and private things. If pertinent, hide weapons, matches, or other means of harm to themselves or others.
- Stop or strictly limit contact with risky friends. This may mean taking away a cell phone and internet access.
- Reduce their allowance if they get one, and reduce free time. Again, this should be negotiated later if behavior and compliance improves.
- Build your own network of other concerned parents to track your kid… in other words, to spy on them. Besides other parents, I even contacted businesses where my teen was known to hang out, such as a mall and cafe. See “Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children.”
Three house rules: 1) stay at home, 2) stay in school, 3) stay out of trouble. He or she must also continue mental health treatment; show respect even if they’re upset; and be encouraged to seek help from another trusted adult if they need to.
Build their esteem as you would for any troubled child. Guide them to their strengths. Give your teenager something to do that they good at, and allow them ample opportunity to shine. More at “The good things about bad kids“.
Extreme measures. I know of three cases where parents took drastic steps to help their son or daughter stay out of trouble, and these worked!
True story – a single father was worried about his son’s gang involvement, especially since the son was still on probation, and additional charges would draw lengthy prison time. Dad sold the family home and bought another one in a neighborhood ‘run’ by an opposing gang. The son was terrified to leave the house except for school—a new school away from his gang brothers. This son graduated high school and left the area for college… with a clean record and new respect for his father.
True story – After a couple of years trying to keep their daughter out of trouble, parents started looking for work in a smaller town. They wanted to find a safer place with fewer risks and more eyes. After she completed her mandated one year probation, the family moved. She was upset to leave her friends, but they were the problem friends. Her crime sprees ended.
True story – a single mother was on the edge of sanity and financial ruin trying to manage the world her son created. While visiting a juvenile justice counselor with her son, the counselor made an off-hand comment about handing him over to foster care so that she could get her job back and sleep at night. With a heavy heart, she went forward and obtained a “voluntary placement” for him (temporary state custody), and he went to a foster home. After two years, he was ready to come home and she was ready and empowered to support him.
A note of caution: You may have seen ads for outdoor programs or “boot camps” for at-risk teens. Some of these programs are extremely inappropriate for troubled youth, even traumatizing. Or some may not allow teens with a criminal history. Get advice about therapeutic programs for your at-risk teenager from a counselor or social worker, not just from the program itself. Your teen’s providers often know which ones are appropriate.
In my personal experience, 99% of employees in juvenile justice are there because they care about teens, they like teens and “get it” about them, and they believe in the power of what they do. My co-workers have many success stories among their cases. Some former delinquents come back to work for the juvenile justice system and use their hard-won experience to help the next generation. Ironically, it’s the one job where a criminal record helps!
If you are concerned about what your child will experience in the juvenile justice system, just call and ask. You may be surprised.
Challenges, risks, and potentially serious problems
- A troubled young person in detention or incarceration is exposed to others with criminal behavior. They may bully or be bullied or both. They may meet fellow inmates to sell drugs to when they get out, or learn who can supply them with drugs. Depression is common, and presents as anger or self-destructive behavior, such as getting in trouble on purpose.
- Not all juvenile departments provide mental health treatment, or treatment is inadequate. And sadly, there are still places where staff and citizens don’t believe in the mental health “excuse” for bad behavior. You may need to be an assertive advocate for treatment. Work with your child’s public defender, who is provided by the court, and give them evidence of mental health problems in medical records. Your child will need to sign a waiver for the attorney to have the records.
- Some states have Mandatory Minimums–pray it’s not yours. Certain crimes lead to long prison sentences regardless of the circumstances of the crime or the mental illness of your child. My state of Oregon will incarcerate anyone over age 15 for seven years if they commit one of these crimes. This made sense to the voters who put it into law, but the reality is a worst-case scenario for how NOT to rehabilitate youth. No one I’ve ever met in our state, from judges to prosecuting attorneys to sheriffs to probation officers, thinks it’s a good idea–the outcomes have been horrible for reasons too lengthy to go into here.
- Each county and state has a different culture and attitude towards juvenile delinquents. Some are exceptionally harsh, or they neglect the kids’ legitimate needs; some are reluctant to treat kids like individuals with different needs and strengths; some get that right balance of punishment and rehabilitation. It depends on the judges, the county, and the state. Each is different.
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Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall (excerpt)
Daily Bulletin, Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, June 12, 2010
“Juvenile halls have become catch-all basins for severely mentally ill youth. Designed as secure holding facilities for minors who are going through the court system, juvenile detention centers now double as a default placement option for youth diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. “There is no place for them in [our system],” said a county juvenile court judge in California. “We can’t just arrest our way out of the problem. Juvenile hall is not a place to house mentally ill.”