Why Do Some Kids End Up In the Juvenile Justice System? An Interview with Martha Stone
Did you know it is National Mental Health Awareness week? As children’s mental health is one of our priority areas, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature one of our grantees working in the area of mental health. The Center for Children’s Advocacy’s (CCA) mission is to improve the child welfare, juvenile justice, health and education systems’ responsiveness to the needs of poor children by 1) providing holistic legal services to poor children in their communities and 2) improving legal representation of poor children.
CCA currently has a grant from us to explore early indicators of mental health issues in school. Specifically, they are evaluating the school records of their clients who are 12-14 years old to uncover whether there was early evidence of mental health issues. CCA uses what it learns from direct client representation to also work to change the practices of systems as evidenced through this project.
I interviewed Martha Stone, Executive Director of CCA, to learn more.
Jenn: How will your research further the early identification of mental health issues in children?
Martha: What’s really important about this grant is that very few, if any, researchers get to look at educational records from students longitudinally. We’re noticing in the research that there are missed identifiers as early as kindergarten through second grade.
Examples of identifiers include multiple social promotions (when children are promoted to the next grade level despite failing grades), exit from bilingual services without parental permission, repeated calls to parent or grandparent to “pick the child up early” from school because of misbehavior, or multiple “child find” violations (when poor attendance, misbehavior, or low academic performance requires a referral to a formal special education process mandated by state and federal law). Unfortunately, these children aren’t identified as needing special education until it’s almost too late, after they’ve had, say, seven years of failing education that hasn’t met their needs.
The three most common behavioral health and psychiatric diagnoses we’re seeing are depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from violence in the children’s communities and in their families. We’re going through these records and seeing that a member of the child’s family was shot, or incarcerated, or a cousin died from gunshot wounds, and there’s no other notation about this in the files. No referrals, no interventions. Then the behaviors show up later on, and they’re never tied back to the early flags.
We plan to use this data to encourage earlier interventions. There needs to be closer collaboration between teachers and school-based health centers, and greater utilization of these centers, particularly if mental health services are attached.
Jenn: What have you learned so far?
Martha: How prevalent the depression is. I don’t think we thought there would be as much documentation of depression in early grades as we’re seeing in some of the educational records now. We’re also seeing that while kids appear resilient in the face of the violence initially, there are behavioral manifestations that show that kids are more vulnerable than they appear on the surface, and which impede academic progress.
Educators are not really equipped to identify or deal with some of these issues. Increased education about the red flags and actions to take in the face of them early on would be important. Another issue we see constantly that contributes to failure is mobility. Many of the children change schools often. When there’s no record of these occurrences and no follow-through, then that child falls through the cracks.
Jenn: What do you see as next steps?
Martha: We’re planning to look at best practices around the country, and propose legislative remedies in Connecticut to address some of the issues we are seeing. Administrative remedies will include working with a school system to educate them on our findings.