Out of Mind, Out of Sight

For a growing number of Texas kids with mental illnesses, the only place to get help is behind bars.

The first time he was arrested for possession he was sent home two hours later. A week after that he was arrested and again immediately released. The third time, he ran from the police, throwing 2.5 ounces of cocaine into the bushes so he was charged only with evading arrest.

Seeing a psychologist was a condition of his probation, but he never went. "I would just disappear," Derrick says.

After a dirty urine test, he was sent to Crockett and was diagnosed with conduct, mood and polysubstance disorders, depression, physical abuse as a child and bereavement for his recently murdered uncle. Now he's reading the second Harry Potter book, studying for his GED and on phase 3.9 of a four-level resocialization scale. He's thinking about becoming an auto mechanic so he can support his two infant sons.

The Corsicana Residential Treatment Center is one of two facilities for mentally ill kids run by the Texas Youth Commission.
Wendy Grossman
The Corsicana Residential Treatment Center is one of two facilities for mentally ill kids run by the Texas Youth Commission.


Part of our three-part series "Make 'em Pay: Juvenile Justice in Texas"

An hour south of Dallas, Corsicana looks like a rundown outlet mall; nearly every store boasts factory warehouse prices. On the edge of town, across from the mall--Wal-Mart, JCPenney and a corn dog store--is the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center. Surrounded by a 15-foot candy cane fence, this is where TYC sends the state's sickest kids.

In 1887 locals donated 200 acres to create an orphanage. TYC bought the home in 1957, sent the orphans to public schools and started bringing in mentally ill offenders.

Corsicana is supposed to house 109 juvenile delinquents. On an early-October afternoon it has 121: 66 males and 55 females. And, like always, a waiting list. Bulldozers are ripping up the roads, and the air is filled with dust. TYC is renovating the cottages, tearing up worn carpet and laying fresh tile. Construction workers are building a new school and converting two buildings into dormitories to house 48 more students by next fall.

There are seven staff psychologists and three part-time psychiatrists who rotate being on campus every day but Sunday. They need more staff members, says the superintendent, Dr. Don Brantley. Intensive treatment here costs $194.51 a day for severely emotionally disturbed kids and $280.02 a day for kids in the 41-bed stabilization unit--compared with the average $102.19 a day for general offenders at other TYC institutions.

Brantley has a doctorate in psychology and talks about being more flexible when dealing with kids classified as "emotionally disturbed." Most incarcerated adolescents are given a set structure and clearly defined, heavily enforced rules, but he says that doesn't work with mentally ill kids. "We need to give them a little leeway," he says. These children, he says, need to be protected. "It can be very difficult for them if we don't recognize that this is a kid that can't compete."

On the other hand, he talks about kids who think they will be coddled at Corsicana so they lie to psychiatrists about voices they don't hear. "There's payoffs for earning a mental health diagnosis," Brantley says. "Some kids outright fake it."

He cites teens who halfheartedly hang themselves when a guard is coming, or tie a noose around their neck, then rap on the door to make sure they don't die. "They don't have the wherewithal or the courage," Brantley says. "Over time, you can see how gamy it is."

A girl on Corsicana's main campus set a record for trying to kill herself this year by tying 100 things around her neck. Brantley didn't move her to the stabilization unit because, he says, her behavior was clearly manipulative. "She's choosing to do this; it's her way of having power or control," he says. "She'd find this so comfortable we wouldn't be able to get her back out."

Inside the stabilization unit girls wearing orange jumpsuits, white socks and flip-flops sit at desks and glare at one another. "These kids would be in a state hospital if they weren't in TYC," Brantley says. Mattresses and blankets are removed from the cells each morning, leaving solid blue blocks bolted to the floor. The window on the bathroom door has been covered, but a peephole was drilled because girls have a tendency to tie bras and panties around their necks, Brantley says.

"They can be really resourceful," adds the assistant superintendent, Lynda Smith.

Down the dusty road is the security unit where youths with severe behavior problems, versus emotional issues, come to "cool off" anywhere from 24 hours to 90 days. "Some kids, you need to separate them out," Brantley says. "They just can't function."

The security unit is usually filled with mostly girls. "They tend to be more emotional and take a little longer to calm down," Brantley says. The observation rooms have larger windows than standard cells so guards can make sure kids don't try to drown themselves in the toilet or stuff clothes down the commode to flood the room.

Outside the administrative building, girls in blue shorts play softball, boys shoot hoops, and a gentle breeze blows through the gazebo.

"Frankly," Brantley says, "a lot of kids don't want to leave. They deliberately won't get better because they don't want to leave. They sabotage their chance for release."

"Jamal," a lanky boy from southeast Houston, has been at Crockett for 28 months. He lived with his grandmother, a retired nurse, his mother, an elementary school cafeteria cook, and his uncles, both police officers. "They were at work most of the time," he says.

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