Psychological screenings urged for state's juvenile lawbreakers

February 25, 1999|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Young lawbreakers in Maryland routinely get tested for drugs and alcohol. But harder-to-discern problems -- anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts -- all too often go ignored.

Prompted by new research that shows large numbers of delinquent youths here and elsewhere in the nation suffer from undiagnosed mental disorders, state officials want to start psychological screenings at juvenile detention facilities.

Health and juvenile justice officials are developing a mental health screening that would be as quick and basic as a drug test. The state plans to begin a pilot program this year at detention centers in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore.

"Our hope is to get more services for these kids, so they're not left sitting in a detention unit without any help," said Ruth Phillips, who coordinates mental health and substance abuse services for the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The effort comes at a time of growing national awareness that a high percentage of incarcerated youths have undetected and untreated psychological problems.

In Maryland, a state-commissioned study released in 1998 found 53 percent of youths in state correction programs had at least one diagnosable mental disorder. More than a third abused alcohol or drugs -- but almost as many had a psychosis such as schizophrenia. A quarter of those in the study required immediate help.

The Maryland study's findings were included in a national survey released yesterday by the National Mental Health Association.

That survey of 11 states concluded all were dramatically wanting in providing psychological services for delinquent juveniles. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, used the results yesterday to propose broad federal legislation to treat delinquents for psychological and substance abuse problems.

Similar legislative efforts are under way in Maryland. Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, and Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat, have sponsored companion bills calling for screening every youth in the state's juvenile justice system.

Their initiative would affect more than 55,000 youths a year -- and cost at least $2.75 million. Under the proposal, state workers would test all juvenile delinquents, including first-time offenders -- even those who skip school or commit petty crimes.

State officials have mixed views.

Oscar Morgan, director of the state Mental Hygiene Administration, said testing would work only if "early intervention is coupled with treatment."

Phillips, of Juvenile Justice, said workers could be overwhelmed if they also have to give substance-abuse and psychological screenings.

A more achievable goal, she said, is to screen the 1,500 youths who are in state detention facilities on any given day.

The state hopes to begin by assessing the 200 youths in one of Baltimore's two facilities and another 100 youths in a Kent County center.

Pub Date: 2/25/99

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