Investing in Children’s Mental Health As a Preventive Law Approach to Juvenile Delinquency

By Catherine Villareale, CFCC Student Fellow 2012-2013

Courts struggle with effective ways to deal with individuals whose mental health issues lead to criminal behavior. This is especially true for courts responsible for adjudicating juvenile delinquency. Childhood exposure to violence can impact children’s social and emotional development. It has been linked to poor social functioning and mental health issues, including depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Some children repeatedly exposed to violence, particularly violence in the home, develop PTSD with symptoms such as re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing, attachment issues, and impulsivity and inattentiveness that mimic the symptoms of AD/HD1. Children involved in the court system, both the delinquency and abuse and neglect systems, have higher trauma exposure rates than other children. They need access to mental health services and treatment programs that can provide appropriate intervention, and they need a trauma-informed court system that can work in tandem with these providers.

Yet as a CFCC Student Fellow examining Maryland’s delinquency system, I find myself wondering how effective our system is at meeting the needs of these children. The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services is charged with providing “individualized care and treatment to youth who have violated the law or who are a danger to themselves or others2.” DJS treatment programs include Functional Family Therapy and Multi-systemic Therapy that provide services in both clinical settings and in the home. These interventions have the potential to help to positively impact children and their family unit as they address some of the underlying issues, including trauma, that lead to the child’s delinquency.

The problem with this model, however, is that children have to be adjudicated as delinquent before they have access to these services. This is especially problematic for poor families who cannot afford to pay for services on their own. Where middle and upper income families can afford to pay for private therapy programs to help their children who are acting out, families without these means must wait for the behaviors to worsen and the consequences to become more severe before intervention is available. By then, the intervention may be too little too late.

Perhaps it is not DJS’s role to provide access to mental health and family therapy services before youth are adjudicated as delinquent. The agency is after all charged with the care and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. If DJS cannot provide these services, I think the state should provide access through another agency. While it is true that in the current economic climate funding for such programs is scarce, the state ends up paying the price down the road in the form of juvenile detention. Maryland spends $22.6 million each year to detain youth.3 According to one study, 2/3 of young people in juvenile detention would meet the requirements to be diagnosed with a mental disorder.4 Furthermore, Maryland continues to move forward with plans to spend $70 million building a 120-bed jail to house youth who have been charged as adults. Juvenile detention is expensive and arguably ineffective. Looking at these statistics, I believe that more investment at the front end to provide children and families with better access to mental health services could lead to lower rates of offenses. Our current system is reactionary. A proactive preventive approach would likely be a better use of the state’s limited resources.

1 Lisa Pilinik & Jessica R. Kendall, The Safe Start Center Series on Children Exposed to Violence Issue Brief #7: Victimization and Trauma Experience by Children and Youth: Implications for Advocates (2012) available at

2 Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, DATA RESOURCE GUIDE FISCAL YEAR 2011 (2012)



0 thoughts on “Investing in Children’s Mental Health As a Preventive Law Approach to Juvenile Delinquency

  1. I couldn't agree more…the state also spends more than $2 million a year to house juveniles in out-of-state facilities, and we get little in terms of a “return” on these expenditures. Because it's not popular politically to be anything but “tough” on crime, many legislators won't even consider such solutions unless voters make it clear that they support these alternative approaches.

  2. Certainly, a preventive approach is needed to provide mental health treatment to children before they are adjudicated as delinquent. After several observations in Baltimore’s juvenile courts, it was disheartening to see the great number of children and families who desired mental health treatment, but were unable to receive resources. One possible solution is to allow another agency besides DJS to provide mental health treatment to children and families. However, I wonder how we might shift the minds of state leaders to a preventive approach when much of state government seems reactionary. Also, with the many challenges our state courts face, I wonder how we make children’s issues, such as this, a priority.

  3. I also agree that there should be some entity which exists to serve the mental health of children and families. I understand that DJS's programs are aimed for those already adjudicated delinquent, but perhaps they could have a branch that deals with preventative programs. If there could be a DJS worker at every single school who could provide services for children and families in need, perhaps it could help prevent future delinquents. In order to receive counseling at school a parent must give consent, but if the parent is absent and not involved in the child's life, they may never get that informed consent that they need. Perhaps being contacted by a DJS worker, instead of a school psychologist, might motivate the parent to act. I have a hard time understanding why the state would not take a more preventative approach to this situation since it is costing us more in the long-run, but I agree with Nicole in that I wonder what would finally make this be a top priority.

  4. This is proof positive that the old adage is true – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When it comes to mental health and behavior related services, you are absolutely right that the state should be making these services available to low-income families who seek them. However, I don't believe that DJS is the appropriate provider of those services. Involvement with DJS in any capacity, even in a pre-delinquency stage, will inevitably come with the stigma, if not the reality, of punishment. If our aim is to get children and families the support services they need in time to prevent involvement with the juvenile justice system, we should be making those services available outside the realm of DJS – perhaps through a services-oriented agency like the Department of Human Resources.

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