Senator Collins Chairs Hearing on Warehousing Mentally Ill Children in Juvenile Detention Centers

WASHINGTON, DC—A new report released today by Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and House Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) shows that all too often, children with mental illness are left to languish in juvenile detention centers while they wait for scarce mental health services in their communities.

“The use of juvenile detention facilities to ‘warehouse’ children with mental disorders is a serious national problem,” said Senator Collins. “On any given night, as many as 2,000 children and teenagers are languishing in juvenile detention facilities across the country simply because they cannot access the mental health services they need.

“These inappropriate detentions are 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,” said Senator Collins.

Over the six-month period covered by the report, nearly 15,000 incarcerated youth—roughly 7 percent of all of the children in the centers surveyed—were detained in juvenile detention centers solely because they were waiting for mental health services. Many were held without any changes pending against them. Children incarcerated unnecessarily while waiting for treatment were as young as seven years old. The report also estimates that juvenile detention facilities are spending an estimated $100 million—at taxpayers’ expense—each year simply to warehouse these children and young people while they are waiting for mental health services.

“When a child has a serious health problem like diabetes or a heart condition, the family turns to their doctor,” said Senator Collins. “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.”

“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,” said Representative Waxman.

Last year, Senator Collins held hearings to examine the difficult challenges faced by families of children with mental illnesses. Too often, parents of these children are advised that the only way they can obtain mental health services, the cost of which can be out of reach for all but the wealthiest of families, is to relinquish custody and place the children in state child welfare or juvenile justice systems. The General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that in 2001, parents placed more than 12,700 children into the child welfare or juvenile justice systems so that these children could receive mental health services. Of these 12,700 children, 3,700 entered the child welfare system and approximately 9,000 children entered the juvenile justice system. Moreover, the numbers are much greater because most states did not respond to the request for data.

It is estimated that as many as one in five American children under the age of 17 suffer from a mental, emotional or behavioral illness. Two-thirds of all young people who need mental health treatment are not receiving it.

Senator Collins also introduced the Keeping Families Together Act (S. 1704), a bipartisan bill that would authorize $55 million for competitive grants to enable federal and state agencies to work together to develop more coordinated systems of care for children with serious mental illnesses and their families.