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KARE 11 Investigates: Mentally ill kids caught in a failing juvenile justice system

A Minnesota teen struggling with severe mental illness and charged with numerous crimes sat in juvenile detention, often isolated, because no treatment was available

Brandon Stahl (KARE11), Lauren Leamanczyk, Steve Eckert

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Published: 5:39 PM CDT November 3, 2022
Updated: 3:11 PM CST November 10, 2022

When attorney Tracy Reid first went to visit her client in June at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, she said staff pleaded with her to get him to stop threatening to kill himself.

She says he spent the next two weeks locked alone in isolation, not allowed any physical contact with other people.

The next time Reid visited, records show the only way she could communicate with him was through a pass-through opening in his locked room – a 6-by-18 inch slit in his door about 2 feet off the ground, where the 16-year-old boy had to sit alone on the floor inside.

Credit: KARE 11
A 16-year-old, severely mentally ill boy spent days in solitary confinement in the Hennepin Juvenile Detention Center.

A doctor who visited him felt he was so mentally ill that he needed urgent care.

“Unfortunately, being in isolation is making the situation worse,” she wrote in an evaluation.  

The doctor’s assessment of the boy could also serve as a description of what too often happens in Minnesota’s system for treating mentally ill children with histories of violence – it only makes things worse, a KARE 11 Investigation has found.

Kids can go through an exhausting merry-go-round of crimes, and in Hennepin County, languish in a juvenile detention center that uses solitary confinement and provides little mental health treatment.

They often are whipped back onto the streets, where they and their families are left without the needed support and supervision, while denied entrance to the only locked, state-run children’s hospital that could treat children like them. 

A KARE 11 investigation finds Minnesota’s juvenile psychiatric hospital is operating at 25 percent capacity – only able to treat a few children at a time. Because of a staffing shortage, state records show most of its beds are empty.

Without adequate treatment, kids often re-offend – leaving injured and traumatized victims in their wake.

“If we’re eventually releasing these children with no services in place, kids will go back to what they know best,” said Angela Bailey, the boy’s co-counsel along with Reid. “We really need to do better.”

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