Juvenile Justice

800 Youths in Treatment, Nary a Full-Time Psychiatrist in Sight, Judge Observes

For nine months, Supervising Judge Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson has overseen the New York City judges who detain juveniles, many of whom suffer from some sort of mental illness.

In September she was made aware of what the New York Times characterizes as a “startling” fact: There are no full-time staff psychiatrists charged with overseeing the treatment of the estimated 800 juveniles in detention at any given time.

“There wasn’t one human being on-site overseeing all the mental health needs of the population,” Judge Richardson-Mendelson tells the Times. “When we place these children in these facilities, we expect their needs to be met, especially their mental health needs.”

Of the 17 psychiatrists at detention facilities in the state, all work on contract and part time, meaning weeks often pass between visits with troubled youths, the Times notes.

The lack of consistent mental health services for New York’s juvenile detainees was noted in Justice Department report, which examined conditions at four of the state’s juvenile prisons.

There is hope for improvement. The Times reports that Gov. David A. Paterson’s budget includes an additional $18.2 million to improve services at juvenile prisons, especially for mental health care. And a spokesman for the state Office of Children and Family Services said the agency is in the process of hiring a “chief psychiatrist” who will work on salary or on contract.

But those who have researched mental health services for juveniles tell the paper that the current system isn’t adequate to meet the needs of troubled children.

“The system just isn’t equipped to deal with children with serious mental health issues,” Tamara A. Steckler, who heads the Juvenile Rights Practice of Legal Aid, tells the Times. “We need to find another mechanism to treat those children.”

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