Mentally Ill Kids Sent to Jail When They Need Help

Budgets cuts to mental health services and the closing of clinics have meant that more of the mentally ill have become homeless, have had to turn to emergency rooms for care, have ended up incarcerated and have found themselves dealing with police rather than care workers. Children with serious mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, have also suffered. In some cases, they are ending up in public schools whose special education staff are not prepared to care for their complex needs.

As the Star-Tribune reports, a time of budget cuts and reduced funding for adolescent mental health services has meant that children like 15-year-old Gianni Grffin-Davis are shuttled back and forth among public school programs for children with emotional and behavior disorders, the psychiatric wards of hospitals and juvenile detention centers.

Gianni has diagnoses of psychotic disorder, bipolar disorder and autism and has been on medication since he was in the first grade. While in third grade, he spent three weeks in the psychiatric unit of Fairview Riverside Hospital after he was observed “talking on an imaginary phone” and “voicing homicidal threats against his family and others.” He has since had numerous behavior problems that have sometimes threatened his safety or that of family members or school staff. Gianni ended up spending his 15th birthday in juvenile detention after he was sentenced for 37 days after setting fire to a bulletin board outside his special education classroom.

Funds Cut for Adolescent Mental Health Services

It’s an understatement to say that Gianni’s needs are complex. Ten years ago, a child with his history in Minnesota would have been placed in a group home with other children with similar issues and attended a day treatment program. But such services have decreased in Minnesota, says the Star-Tribune:

… in an attempt to keep children out of pricey treatment centers and hospitals, Minnesota changed directions in the past decade, pouring millions of dollars into early-intervention programs while cutting funding for longer-term care. The state now serves twice as many children as 10 years ago — 55,000 in 2010, but spending per child is down 47 percent.

On paper, providing children with treatment in their communities while they live with their families sounds like the preferred option. In many cases, it indeed can be. But some students with the emotional-behavior diagnoses that Gianni has are placed in special education classrooms whose teachers and staff have not had the training, and are not getting the administrative support, to best support them.

Not Enough Special Ed Teachers Nationwide

The problem is compounded because, at a time when the number of special education students in Minnesota has increased by 10 percent in the past five years and special education costs have come to take up more and more of school districts’ budgets, the state has seen a steep decline in special education teachers. During the most recent school year the state tracked, 800 of the state’s 8,900 licensed special education teachers quit. At the same time, only 417 new licenses for special ed teachers were issued. As a result, school districts have resorted to having teachers without proper training to teach autistic student and those with other disabilities; some speech therapist provide services to students via Skype.

Nationwide, there is a shortage of special education teachers. A recent report found that California is only turning out about half the number of fully authorized special education teachers that the state needs, even as the numbers of special education students continues to rise. The most recent federal data says that, of the 269,800 teachers who left the profession in 2008, 18 percent of them were in special education.

Some reasons for leaving the profession cited by  Minnesota special education teachers are heavy caseloads, huge amounts of paper work (required under federal law to make sure that programs are accountable and that students’ individual learning needs are being accommodated) and, according to some staff, the “increasing aggressiveness of disabled students” that has resulted in injuries, including bites, bruises and broken bones.

Teachers are facing situations that their college education courses never anticipated, but stigmatizing students with mental health issues simply does not help. Aggressive or violent behaviors can well have underlying causes such as an inability to communicate anxieties and fears. As a society, we must acknowledge that these serious health issues exist and provide adequate care and treatment rather than seeking the most cost-effective solution.

I have seen special education teachers work something like miracles in teaching my teenage autistic son, but schools cannot be turned into “de facto treatment centers.” As politicians and administrators argue about how best to allocate budget dollars, we need to remember that all of these services do make a sweeping difference in the lives of children who would have been cast aside by previous generations — we can’t leave them behind now.

Photo from Thinkstock


Peggy A.
Peggy A4 years ago


Val M.
Val M4 years ago

Very sad

Ann M.
Ann M4 years ago

We can fund every nutty thing and pork barrel project those people on capitol hill think of and we can't address our children's health? We are a sick society in more ways than one.

Angela G.
Angela Gardner4 years ago

There needs to be a change in the model of mental health care. This new model should include early diagnosis of children and early intervention with a emphasis on receiveing care and services in the local community instead of only prisions and hospitals.
We also need more counselors in our schools and better coordination of services between schools, primary care providers, and social services agencies.
In a age of austerity and budget cuts, mental health care like art and sports programs in our schools are the first to go. These budget cuts are made on the backs of our children for the benefit of the wealthy and the coporations having reduced tax rates and not paying their fair share of taxes. It is up to us to stand up for our children we are all they have!

Marija Mohoric
Marija M4 years ago

very sad, tks

Klayr Clark
Klayr Clark4 years ago

While I agree that many special needs students can go to a "normal," mainstreamed school, there are many who that flat will not work. Having one classroom, or hallway, or area isn't going to fit the needs of transportation, crowding,and noise issues. Mainstream schools also try to teach kids what normal children need to know. I agree with that for the high functioning, but for some, that information is overwhelming. I just feel that the states need to stop cutting from education and special needs and start cutting from politician's paychecks.

Mary Beth M.
MaryBeth M4 years ago

This is hardly a news flash-has been going on for decades. The prison system is the largest "mental health institution" in this nation, which means nothing is done-no treatment, no counseling, no diagnoses, no meds. Just a dumping ground. Mental health care in this country is abysmal. And then we throw up our hands in despair and dismay and question how atrocities like Sandy Hook and Columbine, among so many others, can happen? We blame the parents and the schools. Yes, we need gun control reform-desperately. But until those with serious mental illness receive treatment, not incarceration after the fact, we will continue to see this travesty escalate.

Alice H.
Alice H4 years ago

The high cost of cutting spending on education and real services.

Linda B.
Linda B4 years ago

Very sad when are we going to start caring about the children of this country

Vicky P.
Vicky P4 years ago

sad :/