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Report: Mental health care lacking at state's youth prisons
By James Fuller | Daily Herald Staff

The Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, as viewed from neighboring Westside Community Park.


Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer, 2009

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Published: 7/29/2010 10:03 AM | Updated: 7/29/2010 7:14 PM

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More money or a philosophical change in rehabilitating youths in detention facilities are needed if Illinois officials want to end the problems of suicide and rampant recidivism, according to a team of experts.

Illinois Models for Change, a 16-state juvenile justice systems reform initiative, released a study of the problems at Illinois' eight youth detention centers, and voiced those conclusions Thursday. Low staffing, lack of training and a flawed approach to rehabilitating the troubled youths is endemic in nearly all of the state's eight youth detention centers, experts said. The result is youths who don't make much progress toward rehabilitation.

"Often there is no assessment or an inadequate assessment of youth mental health needs," said Edward Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, and who led the team of experts. "We saw a real shortage of well-trained behavioral health staff skilled in identifying and helping with behavioral health problems in the facilities."

However, the group had no answers for exactly how many new staffers are needed, how much their recommended changes will cost, or where the money will come from to pay for the improvements.

Illinois politicians are considering shifting the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees the youth detention centers, under the overall umbrella of concerns overseen by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Experts said Thursday the danger of that plan is repeating the mistakes of the past when juvenile justice was part of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Chronic underfunding and using rehabilitation and screening programs designed for adults is a still a flaw at the youth detention centers even though juvenile justice began separating itself from the department of corrections in 2006, experts said. DCFS would be another large bureaucracy for juvenile justice to get lost in, they added.

The report indicates young adults are already being lost in the system, leading to two recent suicides in the youth detention centers. The youth center in St. Charles, in particular, is so short on staff that caseloads for staff trying to correct behavior is "unmanageable and foreclose the opportunity for any meaningful treatment for youth." Meanwhile, the youth center in Warrenville is one of the only facilities not viewed as being understaffed. The main problem there is lack of training and resources that results in minimal help to the residents in the facility.

"Staff also reported ... that they believed no real programming exists at the facility and that the transition (away from the Department of Corrections) resulted in a loss of resources," the report reads. "The youth were described as having more freedoms and fewer consequences."

Those comments fuel the fact that more than 35 percent of youths released from one of the youth centers end up back at the center or in an adult prison within one year. That reality may also support a suggestion in the study that detention facilities, in general, might be the wrong way to help nonviolent youth offenders. It costs Illinois taxpayers about $80,000 annually for each person housed in a youth detention center. There are currently about 1,200 youths in eight detention centers.

"A more progressive, best-practice approach would be to fund local, community-based services capable of meeting the behavioral health needs of justice-involved youth, while keeping them in their communities and maintaining public safety," the report stated.

Loughran said several states are already experimenting with different approaches by closing some youth detention centers and shifting the dollars.

"Youth move from that high-intensity, and high-cost program to, let's say, a group home that may be half the cost," Loughran said. "Then the youth goes home with functional family therapy. There is a better bang for the state's buck there in terms of the rehabilitation. My hope is that Illinois would move in that direction in the next couple of years.

Calls made directly to superintendents of the individual youth centers for comment were transferred to the agency's headquarters in Springfield. No one answered the agency's phones despite repeated calls throughout the day.