California's counties are assuming greater responsibility for juvenile corrections – a job once handled by the state. And a central task for local governments is ensuring treatment for the many young offenders who suffer from psychological problems.
Research shows that psychological care is key to turning young lives around. And nowhere is that more important than in the state's largest county – Los Angeles – which has the greatest number of kids in trouble.
In a tidy two bedroom house in South Los Angeles, members of a family of six laugh and chat comfortably around the kitchen table. But their newfound ease has been hard won. The family – which doesn't want its last name used – has been in intensive talk therapy for months now – a condition of the eldest son Jesse's release from jail.
"It's better than before," Jesse observed. "Before me and my brother we would lock ourselves in our room and we like, we won't have no communication."
The family therapy was ordered by a judge and it is part of a larger effort in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California to treat the psychological problems at the root of chronic lawlessness.
Mental health treatment, especially with the entire family, is now seen as indispensable in aiding troubled youth. The new focus on psychological care serves as recognition of just how damaged many of these kids are.
In Jesse's case, the boy grew up watching his father beat his mother. He brought knives to school, got in fights, used drugs. Eventually, he was arrested and sent to juvenile hall. And, as for many young offenders, that was the first time anyone took a measure of his mental health.
"They put you in a room with a psychiatrist, and you start with this computer, making you take this test and start asking you all these questions," Jesse recalled.
That test – or one like it – is now used by most counties in California, and more than half of the minors who take it are found to have some kind of mental health problem that goes far beyond typical teenage rebellion. Crimes like arson, robbery and assault, experts say, can be a result of untreated depression or trauma.
But for every teenager like Jesse who gets help, there are thousands of kids sent home on probation in Los Angeles and other California counties whose chance for mental rehab is slim.
"That has to do with access, willingness, and someone helping them make that connection with a provider they trust," said UCLA Professor Laura Abrams.
Some troubled teens live in neighborhoods with few mental health providers or are on wait lists for popular programs, says Abrams. Others are looked after by probation officers with huge case loads. And still others are afraid of being mocked by friends and family and so refuse to fill their prescriptions or enroll in therapy.
"There's a problem with continuity of care, for sure," said San Jose State University Professor Ed Cohen.
Cohen conducted a survey in numerous California counties and found that teens who were treated in custody, often got lost when they got out.
"Some counties don't prescribe any or give any take home meds and some counties give only a week or two," said Cohen. "And then it's up to the family or the court to make sure the youth goes back to treatment. And the rate of going back to treatment is pretty bad."
In Los Angeles, Dave Mitchell, from the county's Probation Department, agrees the system breaks down when kids are released to their homes on probation. But he says there can be serious hurdles even for probation officers who are intent on getting a child into treatment.
Many troubled teens have no health insurance to pay for drugs or therapy and don't qualify for public programs. And then, says Mitchell, even well-meaning medical privacy laws get in the way.
"If a probation officer calls a mental health provider and asks how the youth is doing, they can give general information but not specific information, even like are they taking their meds? Are they med compliant?" he said.
Still, there's been a noticeable change here in Los Angeles over the last few years as the county has added substantial, though still isolated, mental health resources to the immense juvenile justice system. Some probation officers are now trained to do special therapy. Another unit's sole purpose is to connect kids with service providers. The county also offers wrap-around services for 1,200 particularly troubled teens.
The most concentrated effort though is with incarcerated youth. There are now four times the number of mental health staff in county jails, and special areas for kids on suicide watch.
This transformation has been pushed along, in part, by a new requirement that counties keep even serious juvenile offenders, instead of sending them to state-run prisons.
"They're a burden on the probation department because they're criminally somewhat sophisticated," Karen Streich, the juvenile justice mental health chief for Los Angeles County. "How do you manage those youth – mental health wise and non-mental health wise?"
At 21, Francheska Lamb has a fresh and freckled face. She plays and babbles with her cute 18-month-old son, Aiden. But for all that seeming promise, Lamb is considered by many to be a hard case. She has spent half her life in L.A.'s juvenile justice system.
"They wanted to put me on all kinds of medicine because I couldn't sleep and I was all drugged up," Lamb remembered desperate times at a locked youth ranch. "I was cutting on myself real bad because it came to me that nobody wants me and that's just how it is."
In the past, Lamb's drug crimes might have landed her far away from Los Angeles in a state youth prison. Instead, she went to the county's camps designated for teens with serious mental health problems. She was sometimes suicidal but the camps did little to help her outlook. Inside, in fact, she was able to get crystal meth.
"The only thing they would do for me was lock me up in a room with a camera," she said. "They didn't really try to talk to me. They would try to talk to me but they weren't talking to me with respect. Like they'll just yell at me: ‘Why you doing this? Why you doing this?'"
Lamb's assessment of the mental health staff is impossible to verify. But what is certain is that along the way, she developed a close bond with some of her probation officers. Eventually, when she aged out of the juvenile system at age 18, they led her to the Transition Age Youth Academy in Long Beach. There, she gets therapy and help earning her high school diploma.
And while there's no data yet to show how well this new emphasis on mental health care is working across Los Angeles, in Lamb's delicate world it is working – for now.
Listen to part one from this series.