At-Risk Youth in Our Communities

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Mary Faithfull, Executive Director


Welcome to the last Disability Rights Texas Director’s Update of 2011. As we enter the final month of the year and look forward to holiday celebrations and the new year ahead, I find myself reflecting more and more on the at-risk youth in our communities who desperately need our support and attention.

The prevalence of mental illness and emotional disturbances in children is alarmingly high; as many as 22 percent of all children under the age of 18 are estimated to be in need of mental health services. Left unchecked, these youth run headfirst into the juvenile justice system at disproportionately high rates. Currently, 33 percent of youth who are referred to the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission (TJPC) have a diagnosed mental illness, and the percentage of youth identified as needing mental health treatment in the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) is closer to 60 percent.

Earlier this year, disability rights agencies across Texas joined forces to advocate the rights of these children, who are so frequently overlooked and underserved. Policy specialists from Disability Rights Texas, the National Center for Youth Law and Texas Appleseed examined the experiences of youth with mental illness committed to TYC in a report, “Thinking Outside the Cell: Alternatives to Incarceration for Youth with Mental Illness,” which reveals the devastating impact of incarceration on youth with mental illness.

In Texas, hundreds of young people with mental illness are warehoused in juvenile justice facilities — separated from their families, community supports, and the treatments and services they need to turn their lives around.

Thankfully, the Texas Legislature took action and passed Senate Bill 653, which effectively abolished the state’s archaic and Draconian juvenile justice system. Both TYC and TJPC are to be replaced with a newly created Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which will provide a full continuum of treatment and services and divert nonviolent offenders to community- and family-based programs in lieu of secure penal institutions. The new Juvenile Justice Department is expected to launch in early 2012.

In 2011, DRTx attorneys also worked to increase protections for dually managed youth in foster care who are simultaneously involved either with TYC or the State Supported Living Center (SSLC) system. By serving as attorneys ad litem to these children, DRTx staff has been able to track their progress and advocate on their behalf. Our attorneys represented more than 120 youth, advocating on their behalf in a variety of settings — including county courts, TYC and SSLCs — to help ensure they have greater access to education, mental health services, transition planning and other resources.

DRTx advocates and attorneys also held targeted trainings for judges, caseworkers and attorneys across the state who work with dually managed youth to help them better understand how to provide effective representation and support for these vulnerable youth.

Happy New Year to you and yours!