Home News Center Anti-Racism Resource: Why Keeping Children with Mental Health Challenges Out of the Youth Legal System is an Issue of Racial Justice

Anti-Racism Resource: Why Keeping Children with Mental Health Challenges Out of the Youth Legal System is an Issue of Racial Justice

November 29, 2021
Policy Platform: Written by Melissa C. Goeman; Summary by Courtney M. McSwain

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Snapshot from NJJN 2021 Policy Platform: “Keeping Children with Mental Health Challenges Out of the Youth Legal System”

Ensuring youth receive mental health treatment, not punishment, is a matter of racial justice. Approximately 75 to 80 percent of all children and youth that need mental health services are not receiving them, and Black and Hispanic youth are even less likely to receive services.* While approximately 31 percent of White children and youth receive mental health services, only 13 percent of children from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are estimated to receive mental health services.
Children should not be funneled into the youth legal system as a result of mental health challenges. Jurisdictions must adequately resource communities and schools to support children’s positive mental health and provide children in need of mental health care with culturally and linguistically responsive, community-based and school-based, trauma-informed, voluntary services rather than criminalizing them.

Below is a snapshot from “Keeping Children with Mental Health Challenges Out of the Youth Legal System” that shows the convergence realities like structural racism, lack of affordable health care and the school-to-prison pipeline, which create an environment whereby youth of color are far more likely to go untreated for mental health challenges and be funneled into the legal system rather than received the appropriate trauma-informed, community-based treatment.  

Structural racism
The U.S. mental health system was created based on white dominant culture. The unique needs, language, culture and experiences of communities of color have largely been ignored by the mental health system, making it difficult to diagnose and provide culturally competent care to youth of color. Further, structural racism has caused a plethora of problems impacting mental health — race-related mental and emotional trauma, generational poverty, violence, and school failure, as well as the segregation of housing and deep inequities in jobs, healthcare, and other resources — all of which promote the criminalization of youth of color.

Mental health screenings reflect white dominant culture. depression screening tests were developed based on studies of middle-class White women, so it reflects language relevant to their cultural experiences. Most mental health professionals are non-Hispanic whites; only 6.2 percent of psychologists, 5.6 percent of advanced-practice psychiatric nurses, 12.6 percent of social workers, and 21.3 percent of psychiatrists are members of minority groups. It is often hard for youth of color to find psychiatrists and therapists that share their culture or background. When the patient is from a completely different cultural background than the doctor, there is a significant chance that they will miss important symptoms and it impacts the way that they view those symptoms.

Language barriers can also be a problem for immigrant youth with one study finding that Mexican American and other immigrants had low rates of mental health treatment due to language barriers. In addition, fear of deportation or families being deported is another barrier that may prevent immigrant youth from speaking out about mental health struggles.

Lack of affordable health care 
The lack of affordable health care leaves 11.5 percent of Black Americans uninsured compared to 7.5 percent of White Americans. Hispanic, Indigenous and Alaska Natives are 2.5 percent more likely to go uninsured than Whites. The low insurance coverage rates for people of color all ages hinder their ability to get affordable health care.  

Moreover, psychiatrists are much less likely than other types of medical providers to accept any insurance, meaning that those who are wealthy and can afford out-of-pocket fees are more likely to have access to psychiatric services. An average cost for a patient battling severe depression can be over $10,000 a year. The long-standing wealth gap between White families and Black and Hispanic families leaves youth of color disproportionately unable to afford mental health treatment.  

School-to-prison pipeline 
Not all children with mental health challenges are funneled into the youth legal system; it is predominantly youth of color that are treated this way. Because mental illness among youth of color often goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, when these youth act out, they are perceived as threatening instead of potentially having undiagnosed or untreated symptoms of mental illness. A two-tiered system has been created where White children often receive private mental health services that keep them from the legal system while youth of color are “treated” in the legal system. For many youth of color, criminalization occurs at school.  

Policing in schools has increased the criminalization of children by making it more likely that students will be arrested and referred to the criminal legal system and that students of color will be arrested for low-level offenses. Students with disabilities and students of color are the most frequently arrested. Students with disabilities were arrested nationally at 2.9 times the rate of students without disabilities and Black and Hispanic boys with disabilities accounted for 3 percent of all students but comprised 12 percent of school arrests. Research shows that these disparities in arrests are not a result of differences in student behavior. Rather, it reflects both the biases that lead to the overcriminalization of youth of color and the consequences of a lack of behavioral resources available in schools, leading teachers to request help from police.

For youth of color, the legal system is often treated as the default system to address mental health needs, but research consistently shows the harm that youth experience while entangled in the legal system. Young people in juvenile corrections facilities across the country are subject to maltreatment, including widespread physical and sexual abuse, excessive use of force by facility staff, excessive reliance on isolation and restraint, unchecked youth-on-youth violence, and other types of unconstitutional conditions such as the failure to provide required services — including education, health care, and mental health treatment. Such conditions exacerbate mental health challenges and increase the likelihood of future involvement in the legal system.  
NJJN’s central recommendation is to take a public health lens in addressing the issue of children with mental health challenges rather than focusing on ways to suppress children’s behavior through criminalization. Fighting to end the systemic criminalization of youth of color with mental health challenges and to create a system where youth receive treatment in their communities and outside of the legal system is integral to an anti-racist approach to youth justice transformation.  

Read our full policy platform for an extensive list of recommendations for jurisdictions that focus on prevention, investment in mental health supports, counseling in schools over police, protecting children with disabilities, and removing all youth with mental health challenges completely from the legal system. 

>>Download full policy platform

*Please refer to the full policy platform, “Keeping Children with Mental Health Challenges Out of the Youth Legal System” for source material.

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