High-Needs Kids and Juvenile Justice Reforms

As California and the nation continue to struggle with budget crises, creative and cost-effective approaches in the provision of services for high-needs youthful offender populations are becoming increasingly necessary. Leaders in California, Georgia and New York have recently called for reform or “realignment” of their out-of-date state-run juvenile justice systems. While the urgency for reform in many states is a result of strained state budgets, it serves as an opportunity to engage juvenile justice stakeholders to restructure their juvenile justice systems in a more efficient and effective manner. One population to pay particular attention to when planning for juvenile justice realignment is the disproportionate number of youth with mental health needs in juvenile facilities, known as the “crossover caseload.”

These highest-needs youth have historically been neglected during times of reform, when in fact they are the youth most in need of quality, individualized care. As a result of 1980s mental health system reform, juvenile justice systems, in effect, replaced public psychiatric hospitals in the care of mentally ill youth; despite the fact that the juvenile justice system lacks the resources to provide adequate services for this population. Although rates of juvenile incarceration have been declining, a disproportionate number of youth in this crossover caseload are still being confined, between 50-70 percent nationally and 42 percent in California, according to conservative estimates.

California Foster Care, Mental Health Reforms

Under a new agreement, California will begin providing intensive mental health services, both home- and community-based, for children in foster care or at risk of entering the foster care system as part of the early periodic screening, diagnosis and treatment (EPSDT) requirements mandated by federal law.

The new services will be available to a class of children covered under Medicaid, a requirement virtually all foster kids and those at risk of entering foster care meet, according to advocates.

The agreement is the result of a settlement reached after nearly two years of negotiations in a class action suite, Katie A. v. Bonta, aimed at statewide child welfare and health reform. The case, first filed more than nine years ago, charges county and state agencies with neglecting to provide federally-mandated mental health services to children in the state’s foster care system.

The California suit is just one of many that is in the process of or has already been filed across the country seeking to force states to comply with federal Medicaid requirements concerning the well-being of children.