Out of Mind, Out of Sight

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Security measures make it so people who need the most help can't easily get it. A 15-year-old African-American boy was arrested in September. A week later, he sits slumped in a white plastic chair on the fifth floor of the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, heavily drugged, his empty eyes staring at the white wall. He's schizophrenic, and staffers say he needs more care than he's getting, but because he's charged with murdering his brother, he's deemed too dangerous for the 16-bed unit.

"How are you doing, sir?" asks Diana Quintana, a licensed psychologist who is the department's administrator of mental health services. He looks at her blankly, his eyes half closed. She tells him it's really important to let the doctors know how he's doing on his medication. He doesn't answer.

Three weeks later he stops eating and refuses to take his medicine, and the psychiatric staff say he's steadily deteriorating; a judge orders him into the acute unit at the Harris County Psychiatric Center. "He couldn't stay in detention any longer," Bailey says.

The detention center is a depressing place; locked doors lead to metal detectors surrounded by security cameras. The mostly bare walls are covered in scratches and patches (staff members say they haven't decorated because they're moving to a new building in a few years). In the stairwell, a trash can catches yellow water that drips through the soggy ceiling.

In a dimly lit, noisy area, boys' shouts echo off the empty walls. Here, offenders are given the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument, a 52-question true-or-false test that helps identify teens who might have mental or behavioral problems. "It tells us whether we need to ask more, harder questions," Bailey says. "We can decide between those who just want to create victims and those who need help in order to change."

Court-ordered psychological and sanity screenings are mostly performed by the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority's Child and Adolescent Services Forensic Unit (staffed by a licensed psychologist, a psychiatrist and two master's-level clinicians). Formerly the clinical supervisor for the forensic unit, Quintana is the only licensed psychologist the detention center employs, and she does more administrative work than therapy. The probation department's psychiatric staff is composed of a nonlicensed psychologist, three master's-level therapists and two social workers with master's degrees. The mental health authority employs a psychiatrist who prescribes and monitors psychotropic medication twice a week.

"For good or bad, for right or wrong, we are feeling overwhelmed by the needs of mentally ill children," Bailey says.

Two Hispanic boys with crew cuts sit on their knees smiling and waving in the window of an observation room at the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center.

"I'm on vacation," says one 15-year-old sitting on a ripped blue cot-length pillow. "I've gotta get away from home a little bit."

He was arrested for stealing a car and violated his probation by missing curfew. Avoiding his probation officer, he ran away from home and would crash with friends or stay awake walking the streets. Facing a murder charge, he's hoping to be deported back to El Salvador.

This morning he broke a toothbrush in half and used it to scratch a dozen shallow cuts onto his left wrist. "The devil did it to me," he says. "'Cause he's mean."

He points to a third boy sitting quietly in the corner clutching his pastor's business card. "He showed me how to do it," he says.

"No, I didn't," the boy says. "Don't lie."

The quiet boy's arms are covered in serious carvings--his street name, "Little Chaos," is scraped in gothic script. He says he ran away from home because his aunt beat him.

The second smiling, waving boy from the window says he misses his mother; he tried to kill himself by stabbing his shin so he could go to heaven and watch over her.

He starts banging his head against the wall. The first boy with the scratched wrist begins banging his head, too. Soon they're in rhythm, smiling and slamming their skulls.

This is a typical tour of the detention center. "I've been over there twice; I don't want to go back," says Harris County Psychiatric Center's Moore. "I couldn't hardly take it. It's dark and dingy-looking. It's blue; it's depressing even if you don't have a problem."

Seeing kids her grandchildren's age sitting in dark rooms staring at walls moved her to do more than just listen to Bailey's plea to get these kids better care than he can give. "It concerned me that there was no visible therapeutic care," Moore says. "When the kids get out, they have nothing to look forward to--except coming back."

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Wendy Grossman