MARTINSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Indiana is treating its mentally ill children like criminals, locking them up in juvenile detention centers instead of providing the care they need, court officials claim.
While a shortage of providers and a confusing maze of state agencies are issues, critics largely blame the Indiana Department of Child Services, which they say rarely uses its power to provide mental health treatment for youths deemed a danger to themselves or others, The Times of Munster and The Indianapolis Star report. The kids often end up in the juvenile justice system.
"It would be nice if parents could access mental health services short of their children being wards of the court," Judge Loretta Rush, who handles juvenile cases in Tippecanoe County, told The Times.
Morgan County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Bob Cline was fed up with the agency's repeated denial of requests for treatment for children he believed were mentally ill, so filed a legal motion to compel it to help a girl who repeatedly banged her head against a car in a fit of rage. A court order issued last week in Martinsville ruled in DCS' favor, but questioned whether the agency is doing its job.
"It would seem the DCS is simply waiting around until the child commits such egregious or dangerous acts that the system has no choice but to file charges against the child . . . and then the DCS can simply ignore any pleas thereafter to aid such a child," Circuit Judge Matthew Hanson wrote.
He said legislators made a "grave mistake" by passing a 2008 law that took away prosecutors' ability to file "child in need of services," or CHINS, petitions, and gave it to DCS.
Agency spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland questioned the motive behind Hanson's court order.
"Was the hearing on a case the court was not permitted to hear intended to address the welfare of the child," she said, "or to make a point about a legislative change?"
She said the 2008 law clarified the roles of DCS and prosecutors and also prohibits the agency from filing criminal charges.
Critics say the agency should use one type of CHINS petition — a CHINS 6 — which covers the needs of kids who are not neglected but pose a threat to themselves or others. That's what Cline wanted the DCS to do in the Morgan County case, but the agency successfully argued for a different type of petition and a different judge.
Agency Director James Payne told The Times he does not like to use CHINS 6 because, under that procedure, the child and parents have opposing attorneys and it often results with the child being placed in an institution. Payne said he prefers to use a petition that covers situations in which a child's physical or mental condition is impaired because a parent is unable to provide proper medical care.
Some claim the agency doesn't want to spend money on mentally ill kids, even though it has returned hundreds of millions of unspent dollars to the state treasury in recent years.
"It is all about money," said Miami County Prosecutor Bruce Embry. "Why do we have to fight our own state bureaucracy to get help for these kids?"
McFarland denied the allegation that the DCS is being stingy.
"It's not about money," she told the Star, also noting that the DCS also pays for mental health treatment for youths who are placed in the juvenile justice system.
Whatever the reason, Pamela McConey, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Health Indiana, said it's still a problem.
"A kid shouldn't have to go to jail to get mental health services, and parents should not be labeled as neglectful because they don't have the resources or ability to get their children the help they need," she said. "The system is broken, and we are putting some of our most vulnerable residents at risk."
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