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The First Judicial District’s Mental Health Court Program is designed to divert certain mentally ill children out of the delinquency system and provide help and resources to these juveniles and their families. Modeled after a similar program in San Jose, California, the court is the first of its kind in Colorado and one of the first juvenile mental health courts in the nation.
In the Jefferson County Mental Health Court, one juvenile probation officer supervises a maximum of 25 kids at any given time. The probation officer is partially compensated with Senate Bill 94 funds, established to help reduce violent crime and recidivism in juveniles.
Kids with mental illness create a unique and potentially dangerous problem: they are often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Mentally ill children may begin breaking the law when they turn to illegal drugs in attempts to self-medicate. Desperate parents are often forced to call police to handle out-of-control kids (who are not true criminals) simply because parents don't know where else to turn.
The First Judicial District Juvenile Mental Health Court is a collaborative effort among the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, District Attorney, courts, Probation Department, Public Defenders' Office, Juvenile Assessment Center, Department of Human Services, school district and the Rocky Mountain Children's Law Center. A member from each of these agencies sits on the mental health court screening committee.
To be eligible, mental health court participants must have a diagnosed mental illness. Most children currently enrolled suffer from major depression and bipolar disorders. Their ages range from 12 to 18.
Community members having contact with mentally ill children may make referrals to the court. A comprehensive assessment of each child is completed before the case is presented to the screening committee, which meets twice a month and must unanimously agree to accept a child into the program. When determining whether the child is a good candidate, the committee considers the child's parents and their willingness to comply. This program cannot be successful unless everyone works together.
Once accepted, kids in the mental health court are assigned one of two tracks that provide a maximum of one or two years' supervision. Once the child successfully completes the terms and conditions imposed, his case is dismissed.
A major difference between this program and traditional juvenile court is the frequent court reviews, which are designed to follow the participant’s progress. Ordinarily, a juvenile in the delinquency system doesn’t see a magistrate again until there is a problem.
Kids, and their parents, in the mental health court meet with staff at the Jefferson Center for Mental Health to arrange services. They also meet with probation to establish the terms and conditions of their supervision. The mental health court requires each child to enter a contract with the Probation Department to be supervised at the Intensive Supervision Probation (ISP) level, meaning more frequent meetings with the probation officer than ordinary probation and unannounced visits to home and school. The family must agree to the contract’s conditions, support the child and may be required to participate in family counseling.
The Juvenile Mental Health Court is both incentive- and sanction-based. The partner professionals working to make this program a success present rewards for positive behavior. Negative behavior can result in magistrate-ordered sanctions, which may include sending the misbehaving juvenile to Mount View Youth Services Center for a weekend, assigning the offender to a juvenile work crew or requiring the child to write a paper.
Success in this program demands parent and child commitment. Mental illness is something the child, and the family, will deal with for a lifetime. The mental health court is designed to provide families with the necessary tools to handle problems constructively and help manage behavior so the juvenile can ultimately avoid the adult justice system and, hopefully, develop life skills necessary for the person to grow into a productive citizen.
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