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Recommit to serving troubled teens
Daily Herald Editorial Board
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Published: 8/3/2010 12:03 AM

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It's been nearly a year since a 16-year-old boy took his own life inside a state youth prison in St. Charles. Nearly a year to look at what went wrong. Nearly a year for change to happen.

We've taken a look, but we're still lacking in enough change.

A new report provides insights into why the state Department of Juvenile Justice is failing to adequately serve our most troubled youths. Among its most alarming findings were a lack of proper mental health screenings and an undertrained staff.

An estimated 70 percent of the children entering the system suffer from some degree of mental illness. Many aren't getting the help they truly need. After months or years in the system, they are re-entering society unprepared.

The state has the responsibility to ensure these kids get the care and treatment to prevent a life of committing crimes and cycling in and out of jail. Yet some are being lost in a system designed to protect them. The youth center in St. Charles is so short on staff that there is little chance for "any meaningful treatment," the report said.

Released last week, the findings are part of a 16-state juvenile justice systems reform initiative called Models for Change. A separate, searing report last October that detailed dangerous conditions at the St. Charles facility led to some improvements, including removal of the bunk beds there and at the seven other youth centers that made suicide possible.

The changes are commendable, but there is much more work to be done. If we are to be the kind of society that values our young - our future - leaders need to act now.

The report's recommendations offer a chance to recommit and set priorities. For instance, the Warrenville and St. Charles sites, which serve as intake centers, could develop comprehensive treatment plans for each child who enters. The state could partner with colleges to support staff training that includes new research about adolescent brain development. More cooperation with families and service agencies in the youths' home communities would help ensure a safe return.

Gov. Pat Quinn wants to merge the juvenile system with the Department of Children and Family Services. That's worth considering, but would the 3,000 teens who are in and out of custody get swallowed up in an agency supporting five times that many kids and long criticized for its backlogs? We need assurances they wouldn't.

Four years ago, these children were rightly separated from the adult corrections system, but the lack of attention to their needs is inexcusable. In a cash-strapped state, more funding may not be possible. Resetting priorities is. Sending troubled kids back to their communities without the tools to cope poses a risk not only to themselves but to those around them. More change is needed now.