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May 14, 2010 > County to implement 'Non-detention in Juvenile Hall' policy

County to implement 'Non-detention in Juvenile Hall' policy

Submitted By Gwen Mitchell, Marina Hinestrosa and Delores Nnam

On May 11, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors accepted a series of recommendations and policy changes to limit the detention of children 12 years-old and younger in Juvenile Hall. The action follows a report from the Juvenile Justice Commission that considered the specific circumstances of youth who had been detained.

The Commission reviewed the court files of 30 youth, aged 12 and under, in Juvenile Hall with an open case. Seventeen had been a Department of Family and Children's Services client and had been physically or sexually abused; 11 had a mental health diagnoses including Post Traumatic Disorder Syndrome, bi-polar, depression, borderline personality, suicidal, oppositional defiant and conduct disordered; 13 already had significant drug and alcohol problems; 21 had prior Probation contact without detention; 18 had a parent who was incarcerated, dead or disappeared; six were not attending school at all; 13 were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Serious Emotional Disturbance, and/or have an Individual Education Plan; five have gang affiliation; nine have been or were currently placed in an institutionalized setting; 27 had one or more of the above issues.

"Although Santa Clara County's Juvenile Hall has made tremendous efforts to serve and help reform youth detainees, the fact remains it's a detention and incarceration facility, first and foremost," said Supervisor Dave Cortese, Chair of the Board's Children, Seniors and Families Committee. "The majority of young offenders, aged 12 and under, don't have the mental capacity or maturity to appreciate the intent of their actions, so a detention environment is inappropriate and would not achieve the rehabilitative goal of helping them re-enter the world in a healthy manner."

Although the Probation Department's recommendations are considered, the Board acknowledged the final decision about the placement of youth is made by the Courts.

"Adopting a strong public policy statement that commits the county to try every possible option for alternate placement will discourage the notion that Juvenile Hall should be used as a holding facility because of a lack of suitable placement options," said Supervisor George Shirakawa, Vice Chair of the Board's Children, Seniors and Families Committee. "The policy will give our professional staff the support they need to work with the non-profit community and neighboring jurisdictions to develop genuine options for such troubled youth."

Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell reported on discussions with other Probation Departments in the area and with local community based organizations. As a rule, the Probation Department works with community partners to place kids under 13 years old.

"The challenge is to strike a balance between safe options for the child and safety for the community in those cases where youngsters have committed egregious crimes," said Mitchell. "We're working with the Bill Wilson Center. They've taken the lead to implement Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) for children in our County. We're exploring this treatment model which identifies and trains foster-care families with specialized skills to deal with troubled youth."

MTFC is a proven, cost-effective alternative to regular foster care, group or residential treatment, and incarceration for youth who have problems with chronic disruptive behavior. The County expects to be able to offer this service through a community-based partner, beginning July 1.

Appropriate placements for youngsters with serious behavioral challenges has proved difficult for most Bay Area counties. Fresno County has successfully used MTFC model for the past four years. Santa Clara County will examine their approach for lessons learned.

"We're confident the new policy will enable us to address each child's needs and obtain the necessary resources for the right placement," said Mitchell.

"We've an opportunity to create programs beyond the punitive model," said County Executive Jeffrey V. Smith. "With the right approach and resources, we can help these youngsters, who've experienced so many traumas during their young lives, begin the healing process."

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