National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

Stop Putting Sick Children in Jail

Congressional Investigative Report Released

NAMI Testimony Calls for End to Warehousing Scandal

July 7. 2004

NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) today condemned state and local governments that warehouse children and adolescents with mental illnesses in the juvenile justice system – simply because adequate treatment and services in their communities are not available.

"We are spending money in all the wrong places," declared NAMI Maine executive director Carol Carothers, testifying on behalf of NAMI before a hearing of the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on a Congressional investigative report on the scandal. Click here to read the full text of her testimony.

The widespread warehousing of children with mental illnesses in juvenile justice facilities was revealed in the investigative report jointly released today by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Committee on Government Reform. The report, entitled "Incarceration of Youth who are Waiting for Community Mental Health Services in the United States", reveals that youth with mental illnesses are commonly held in juvenile detention centers without any charges against them, while waiting for treatment.

Senator Susan Collins, (R – Maine), Chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, called these inappropriate detentions "a regrettable symptom of a much larger problem, which is the lack of available, affordable, and appropriate mental health services and support systems for children with mental illness and their families...When a child has a serious health problem like diabetes or a heart condition, the family turns to their doctor. When the family includes a child with a serious mental illness, it is often forced go to the child welfare or juvenile justice system to secure treatment. Neither of these systems is equipped to care for a child with a serious mental illness, but in far too many cases, there is nowhere else for the family to turn."

The report was prepared jointly for Senator Collins and Representative Henry Waxman (D – California), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform. Representative Waxman called for an immediate end to the shameful practices revealed in the report. "It is shocking that so many youth are jailed unnecessarily because they cannot obtain community mental health services. This is a crisis that demands the attention of Congress."

In Maine, Carothers noted, 10 year old children may be housed with 20 year olds, where they are vulnerable to physical or sexual assaults. Keeping children in the community, however, leads to better outcomes and saves taxpayer dollars: $30,000 to provide intensive in-house services for a family for one year, compared to $80,000 to lock a child in a detention center.

The Congressional investigative report documents "a national crisis", Carothers said, resulting in part from reduction or elimination of mental health services as states struggle to balance budgets. However, money cut from such services is not saved. "Instead, it will be shifted to corrections budgets, a waste of the taxpayer’s money."

Carothers is one of 10 persons nationwide recently honored with a $120,000 award from the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program, for efforts to reform Maine’s mental health and criminal justice systems. In her testimony, she also referred to a three-part investigative series, "Castaway Children," published by the Maine’s Portland Press Herald in 2002.

Carothers called on Congress to enact the:

* Keeping Families Together Act (S.1704/H.R.3243) to provide grants to states to develop more comprehensive, coordinated community-based services for children.

* Family Opportunity Act to allow families with children with serious disabilities to buy into Medicaid for essential services.

* Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act to prohibit discriminatory limits on mental health benefits in private insurance coverage.

* The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (S. 1194/H.R. 2387) to support jail diversion programs for treatment.

Click here to read a copy of the report.

Click here to read a copy of NAMI’s press release about the report.