New Jersey’s juvenile justice system is illegally holding hundreds of mentally ill children in overcrowded conditions with so little care that suicidal behavior has become commonplace, says to a report by the state’s child advocate quoted by the Newark Star-Ledger. A yearlong investigation of New Jersey’s 17 juvenile detention centers found many children who have serious mental disorders, are heavily medicated and are at risk of killing themselves. In the first eight months of this year, investigators documented more than 90 suicide threats or attempts.
The Office of the Child Advocate found that mentally ill children who have been arrested and ordered by a judge into a treatment facility that has no openings often languish in the detention center, in direct violation of state law, for weeks or months. These children wait longer, on average, than the most serious delinquents sentenced to lengthy jail terms. “New Jersey’s juvenile detention centers now serve inappropriately and illegally as way stations for confined youth in need of mental health care,” state Child Advocate Kevin Ryan said. “This misuse of detention centers comes at a great cost to youth, for it compromises their health, it creates crises within detention centers and it is very costly to society.” Investigators estimated that on any given day, 200 children with serious mental health disorders sit in detention centers — about a fifth of the total number of detainees. The county facilities, built as temporary holding sites for dangerous youths, are not equipped to care for the mentally ill, the report said. Frequently, mentally ill children must sleep alongside hardened, dangerous detainees.