Unlike most children, Allen* didn't have the opportunity to spend his 10th birthday with family and friends. Instead of blowing out candles on a cake, Allen was alone in a juvenile detention center.
Despite state laws that prohibit extended detention, Allen was kept away from his family for almost two months. He not only missed his birthday, but also Thanksgiving and his stepfather's funeral.
Although Allen's mental health needs could have been addressed through existing community resources, he was instead locked in a cell, waiting for a bed to become available at a distant residential facility.
"Thousands of kids in this country are confined in detention for weeks -- even months -- waiting for mental health services," said Center staff attorney Julia Lee, who worked on Allen's case. "But instead of receiving the treatment they need, they end up getting passed around from agency to agency in a game of 'not my kid.'"
Sadly, Allen's case is not unique. Approximately 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have specialized mental health needs -- compared to about 20 percent of youths overall. Mental health problems are even more prevalent in poor states like Mississippi, where researchers found that up to 85 percent of incarcerated youths had a diagnosable mental health condition.
Even in cases like Allen's -- where a child's special needs are clear to everyone -- children awaiting mental health services are often warehoused in juvenile jails that lack the staff, resources, and expertise to provide treatment for troubled youths.
A 2004 congressional study (PDF) found that in a six-month period, nearly 15,000 youths across the country had been locked in juvenile detention while they waited for community mental health services.
"We have had a number of juveniles who should no more be in our institution than I should be able to fly," said a detention center administrator quoted in the study. Said another: "We are the dumping grounds for the juvenile system."
These findings come as no surprise to Allen's mother. "The judge wanted to send him off, and that's wrong because he was only nine years old," she said. "My child was taken away from me and placed with older kids. It's like being locked up in a jail."
Center lawyers quickly intervened to get Allen released from detention, but that was only half of the battle. The next step was to design a long term plan that would allow Allen to remain at home while getting the treatment he needed to be successful.
Before the Center intervened, Allen's mother said, "They were all on the same page about keeping him away from home and sending him away." Within weeks after his release from detention, Allen would have been transferred to a faraway institution for long-term residential treatment. "I had no transportation, still don't, and would not have been able to go see him," she said.
After consulting with experts and researching available community resources, Lee persuaded Allen's judge to adopt an alternative treatment plan that would allow him to receive necessary services in the community.
Today, Allen's mom says she is happy that her son is at home with her and that he's doing well outside of the detention facility. She is grateful to the Center for helping her son.
"When they didn't want him to go home, the Center went in on my behalf to get him out," she said. "The only way for me to get Allen home was to find someone who knew the rules. The Center's lawyer knew the rules and got the judge to see Allen was only nine years old."
Allen says what one might expect a child his age to say. He was scared, and he kept thinking one thing: "I was looking forward to going home."
The Center is working on multiple fronts to keep troubled youths out of prison and strengthen community-based services for children in Alabama, Mississippi, and throughout the Southeast.
*Allen is a pseudonym used to protect the Center's juvenile client's privacy.