New Juvenile Mental Health Court in Texas Helps Youth Recover As They Are Held Accountable

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Over two decades ago, as a favor to a friend, I walked into the very juvenile courtroom that I now have the privilege of presiding over on a daily basis. A racquetball buddy of mine found himself in need of a defense attorney for his son. When I walked into the juvenile courtroom to familiarize myself with the process prior to taking the youngster’s case, I knew right then and there that I had found my home away from home.

From day one, those alleged “juvenile delinquents” moved me in a way I am hard-pressed to describe. The young people in juvenile court are resilient, talented, unique unto themselves and capable of stunning greatness. They should not be defined nor stigmatized by the acts that brought them into the juvenile justice system.

That is not to say that they should not be held accountable for their choices. I believe young people will accept and respond to fair consequences and will react in kind if we set our expectations of them at the high watermark.

As much as I enjoy the daily docket, my heart soars in fulfilling a new role, presiding judge of the Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. SOAR Court was the brainchild of Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department. The theory behind this specialty court is that through intense services, court involvement, recommendations of a treatment team and community involvement, we can divert medium- to high-risk children with mental illnesses away from placement and instead keep them in the communities with their families.

In doing so, we can offer services and interventions not only to the child, but to everyone involved in the child’s life. Part of our mission is to build relationships between the court-impacted families and treatment providers and community resources so that when probation ends, the family is still functional and connected to local resources and assistance in their communities.

The children in SOAR have a diagnosed mental illness. Not to in any way diminish the impact of certain mental illnesses, but unlike many mental health courts, we focus on the more serious mental illnesses such as mood disorders rather than something like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. SOAR Court is not a substitute for children who are “unfit to proceed” or who lack “responsibility for their conduct” (Texas statutory terms).

No child should be expected to plead true to an offense if she does not have the cognitive ability to understand the proceedings and assist in her defense or appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct or to “conform [her] conduct to the requirements of law” (Texas statutory definitions found in Chapter 55 of the Texas Family Code). The children in SOAR Court must be competent to enter pleas of “true” and not be entitled to the juvenile version of the “insanity defense.”

Children may be referred to SOAR by the prosecution, probation officers, community members such as police agencies and teachers, parents or the child’s attorney. The screening process is intense and involves a behavioral health assessment or psychological evaluation, application, interview and consent of the SOAR treatment team.

Once a child and family are admitted into SOAR, they will begin a journey involving individual and group therapy, family therapy, parenting classes, assessment and reassessment, participation in programs to develop social and self-advocacy skills, educational assistance and the responsibility of appearing in open court to articulate challenges and successes. In open court, each child and parent/guardian stands in front of a whole courtroom full of supporters and other SOAR participants to explain what events or conditions have been hardships since we last met and what experiences have been positive.

Incentives and sanctions are handed out in this open court setting. Such incentives and sanctions have been discussed and agreed upon in advance during a treatment team meeting. The treatment team consists of Ms. Prillwitz, a case manager, a probation officer, a state’s attorney, a defense attorney and myself. Examples of incentives include lessening of restrictions, praise by the team and the court, expansion of privileges and receipt of certificates of accomplishment. Extra community service, essay writing, restricted curfews and, as a last resort and sparingly used, detention are examples of sanctions.

SOAR consists of four phases. The first is orientation, assessment, rapport building and treatment planning. The treatment plans devised by our probation officer and caseworker are something to behold: very much individualized, intense and subject to review as the child and family progress. Stabilization comprises phase two of SOAR, followed by phase three, a transition phase wherein court involvement, probation and caseworker contact, and the intensity of services and counseling is reduced. The last phase is our aftercare and maintenance phase.

Our SOAR Court started on Nov. 1, 2016. Thus far no child has been removed from the court, and we have had one successful graduate. To call her a success is to diminish what she actually accomplished. Our first graduate progressed from being nonvocal in court to becoming a self-advocating, self-correcting, selfless member of her community — helping people in her neighborhood and church, and even block walking for a city council candidate. We see more such accomplishments in her future and in the futures of other SOAR participants.

So you might be asking what SOAR means. It means whatever it means to you and, more importantly, whatever it means to the young people in our court. The treatment team views this as a joint endeavor between us and the families. We do not propose to know all the answers, but we want to work with the families so that we can exercise trauma-informed care while focusing on strengths.

The concept behind Ms. Prillwitz’s vision was assuredly sound. Her implementation of this program was nothing short of amazing. The path to approval of and funding for a specialty court such as this is certainly not easy and involved consent from the prosecuting attorney’s office and approval of the commissioner’s court and governor’s office. However, it is all worth the effort. Now it is up to our treatment team to do all we can to help the children and families in our court SOAR!

Kimberly McCary is the judge of Denton County Court at Law Number One, Sitting as a Juvenile Court, and the judge of the Denton County Juvenile Mental Health Court, SOAR. Before that she  was in private practice, specializing in juvenile defense work and serving as a municipal court judge.

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