By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"They think the worst thing they can do is lock kids in their rooms," says Van Fleet.
Mental Illness Underestimated, Underfunded
Rebecca was lucky. A youth rights advocate got her out of separation after only 18 days. Three weeks later she turned 18, and was released to the streets -- likely with a 30-day supply of meds and the phone number for Value Options, the state-subsidized mental health agency.
Director Gaspar speaks proudly of how he's added highly trained mental health professionals to his payroll, increased counseling sessions and created new substance abuse programs.
But staff interviewed for this story report a different situation, one which often ignores or even exacerbates mental illness among ADJC's troubled population.
The staff say unqualified corrections officers are leading group sessions and that staff psychiatrists spend more time on administrative chores than with sick kids.
Complicating matters is the fact that kids who started treatment with federal assistance from Medicaid before they got into trouble are dropped from those programs because the feds won't pay for their treatment while they are institutionalized. ADJC staff say it can take weeks or months to get a kid back on the right meds and course of psychiatric treatment once he or she is committed to ADJC.
And likewise, when juveniles like Rebecca are dumped from ADJC custody at 18, they are given little information about how to get Medicaid assistance, let alone how to cope with the outside world.
ADJC does maintain specialty mental health cottages. With 25 beds and a much smaller female population agency-wise, Maya, the girls' cottage at Black Canyon, is seldom filled to capacity.
But there is a perpetual waiting list for Encanto -- the only mental health cottage in the state for boys, with just 34 beds for a pool of more than 750 who need them. Critics say the lack of beds alone is proof that adequate services are not being provided.
Roberto, the boy who cut himself and painted the walls with his own blood (see The Kids Are Not Alright), was recommitted recently to ADJC. He was initially assigned to a cottage in the general population -- even though he was still cutting himself.
His attorney, Barbara Cerepayna, fought to get Roberto a spot in Encanto and she believes he would not have been placed there without a strong advocate, something most kids don't have. Beyond that, she says, "His mental health problems have escalated to such a point that I truly don't know what I'm going to advocate for yet."
Angry parents have filed claims with the state, seeking damages for harm done to kids referred to Encanto but placed in the general population.
Take Mark, for example. He was committed to ADJC and placed at Catalina Mountain School, even though the judge recommended he be sent to the Encanto cottage at Adobe Mountain because of his long history of mental illness. Not only does Encanto offer more extensive mental health services and increased supervision, it also houses boys in single rooms.
Mark was assaulted twice at Catalina, according to a letter his attorney recently sent to the state, in which she demanded $1 million in compensation.
Already fearful for his safety, Mark had been waiting for a corrections officer to escort him to his cell after his cottage watched a video in their day room. John, a boy with a violent history, approached Mark and asked him if he always sat by the officer because he was afraid. Mark told John to shut up, and John attacked him. A staff member had to hit John on the back with a chair to get him off of Mark.
Mark suffered a broken ear drum and permanent hearing loss, a broken nose and possible brain damage.
"In the years that I have been here, I have never seen such a brutal attack on another youth like this one," a corrections officer wrote in a report on the incident, noting that it took 45 minutes to clean up the blood.
Even state officials who keep an eye on the agency's liability are concerned about the way ADJC treats kids with mental health issues. Assistant attorney general Cynthia Choate recently wrote to Phil Lopez, ADJC counsel, requesting information in a case involving Ralph, a boy who was assaulted after he was sent to the Sunrise Mountain facility in Buckeye, instead of the mental health unit at Encanto.
Choate writes, ". . . it does not appear this case will settle for a nominal amount. . . . [If the young man who assaulted Ralph] has a `colorful' history, this may be problematic and further evidence that we should settle the case. . . ."
Gaspar says he could use more mental health beds. But he downplays the need for them. He insists that most of the kids in his custody are not mentally ill, simply delinquents.
A "mental health kid," he says, is "a kid who cannot sort out what day it is or how he faces or she faces today's life and she needs psychotropic drugs, for example, to sort of help create some balance. Those are kids who I think are mental health kids. That's my training.