Trenton depends on other states
to treat troubled kids
BY JONATHAN SCHUPPE, Star-Ledger from the Web, November 25, 2004
While hundreds of mentally ill juvenile offenders languish in New Jersey's crowded detention centers, those who eventually find treatment are often sent to residential facilities in other states.
The children end up hundreds of miles from home, and the state pays a premium for their care -- symptoms of New Jersey's inability to provide for its own mentally ill youth, state and local officials said yesterday.
Lacking appropriate treatment centers, the state contracts with private facilities as far away as Florida and Illinois.
Currently 240 children are living in mental health facilities outside the state, while 763 are housed at in-state residential treatment centers, according to the Department of Human Services.
On Monday, the state Child Advocate revealed the results of a yearlong investigation that showed hundreds of mentally ill children are illegally placed behind bars for weeks or months without proper care.
Child Advocate Kevin Ryan said that on any given day about 200 are sitting in detention because the state does not have enough treatment facilities to accommodate them.
Yesterday, Ryan and other state and local officials acknowledged that the resources are so scarce that when offenders are removed from detention for treatment, they often end up joining the hundreds of mentally ill youngsters from New Jersey sent to other states, far from friends and families.
It's a plight no one is proud of.
"It's better to be in a therapeutic community out of state than languishing in a lockup without care, but that shouldn't be the choice," Ryan said.
Just how many of the 240 children now placed out of state came from the state's 17 county detention centers is not clear; the Department of Human Services said yesterday it would take a couple of days to come up with that figure.
Ronald Salahuddin, director of Essex County's juvenile detention center, said he has sent four of his charges to facilities in others states in the past 10 months.
One, a 16-year-old HIV-positive boy, had to be driven by state workers to a facility in Virginia after he refused to board a plane.
Another, a 14-year-old girl who refused to eat, waited 75 days for placement only to end up in Pennsylvania.
Others recently have gone to Atlanta and Brooklyn.
"If we're saying that we're not capable in New Jersey of treating mentally ill children, then we should send them to the moon if that's where they can get help.
But what are we, a third-rate country?" Salahuddin said. "This is a sorry state of affairs."
Joseph Delmar, a Human Services spokesman, said the department always does everything it can to keep a child in New Jersey, and out-of-state placements remain a "last resort."
But particularly in the case of children with serious behavioral problems -- those who start fires or have sexual disorders, for example -- the only available place is in one of the 34 private facilities it contracts with in other states.
The average daily cost for a child to stay at an accredited out-of-state facility is $320, compared with $268 in New Jersey, Delmar said.
"Any type of placement is done in the best interest of the child and how that child will make progress," Delmar said.
For years, New Jersey has been under pressure to reduce its reliance on out-of-state placements.
In response to a court-ordered settlement of a class action lawsuit by a children's advocacy group, the state is now preparing to spend millions of dollars over the next several years to expand mental health facilities.
New Jersey must start reducing the number of children sent to other states by next December, and ultimately cut it to about 56 by 2006.
But the job is only getting tougher. Last summer, the state lost Lipman Hall, a private Newark facility that served boys with serious behavioral problems, when it was shuttered for financial reasons.
That meant 110 beds became unavailable, and several of the boys were sent to other states.
The state is also in the process of closing its only psychiatric hospital for kids, Arthur Brisbane Child Treatment Center in Wall, a 40-bed facility that was criticized for abuse and inadequate care.
Richard O'Grady, director of the New Jersey Association of Children's Residential Facilities, which represents almost all the New Jersey mental health facilities under contract with the state, said none has an open bed.
Often, kids in these facilities stay long after treatment because they have no home to return to.
Bruce Stout, a former head of the Juvenile Justice Commission who now directs the Violence Institute of New Jersey, said past efforts to stem the number of mentally ill children sent out of state have been successful.
"When you close facilities like Brisbane and Lipman and don't work diligently to develop community based alternatives, all those kids end up in justice facilities," Stout said.
Delmar said the state is up to the challenge, despite the closures. "We are going to do everything in our power to meet the (court-ordered) benchmarks," he said.
Jonathan Schuppe covers criminal justice. He can be reached at email@example.com or (609) 989-0398.