WOODSTOCK – Senior Probation Officer Bill Pickens said some of the juveniles he’s worked with probably could have stayed out of the system if the proper program was available to help them.
Mental health issues, drug abuse and family dysfunction can be factors that drive criminality, Pickens said, and it’s “not as simple as just putting it in a little box and saying, ‘This is what it is.’ ”
A new training program at the McHenry County Probation and Court Services Office works on better processes of engagement with offenders, and is very specific to an individual’s needs, said James Edwards, Juvenile Division chief managing officer.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all program, but it’s a series of practices that can work with any of the criminal justice clients based upon their individual needs,” Edwards said.
Looking at cases this way can help when it comes to working with juveniles who have mental health issues.
About 40 percent of the 250 juveniles with which the McHenry County Probation and Court Services Office works are classified as having a moderate to high mental health risk, according to information provided by the office. This includes juveniles on probation, diversion programs or administrative programs.
Pickens, who has been working in the field for almost 29 years, said mental health problems for offenders are frequent but don’t necessarily trend up or down.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Pickens said. “There are always cases I’m dealing with with mental health issues.”
Diagnoses can range from schizophrenia to personality or mood disorders, according to Probation and Court Services officials.
Edwards said mental health problems could “lead to risk factors that would lead to the potentiality of being more inclined to commit crimes,” but that does not mean all juveniles with mental health issues commit crimes.
When it comes to treating juvenile offenders with mental health disorders, Edwards said early intervention is key, “but we have a big role in it, too.”
Pickens said in the past few years he’s seen a change in approach in the criminal justice system, where probation officers are viewed as more of “change agents.”
He said his job is to address the criminality and what drives it – whether a mental health issue is the driving force or other factors.
The Integrated Co-occurring Treatment program is one program the department uses that specifically works with juveniles who are identified with a mental health condition and who have abused a substance, Edwards said.
The department also is in the process of starting a new Multi Systemic Therapy program, which is an intensive home-based program that works with youths with a range of issues and is very family-inclusive, Edwards said.
Pickens said he sees “a lot of cases [that] are self-medicating themselves, using illegal drugs to give a calming effect.”
Sometimes when a juvenile comes in, it’s not clear whether addiction or mental health is the problem, Pickens said.
When a juvenile comes in to court services, they’re looked at on an individual basis, Pickens said, and it starts at the investigation level when information is gathered on a juvenile’s history.
The judge then will decide what conditions of probation the offender should be under, Pickens said, which could include conducting an assessment to see whether the juvenile has a mental health issue.
“What you really want to do is make sure they’re in the proper services first,” Pickens said of juvenile offenders.
In addition to court service’s programs, the Juvenile Division works with the Pioneer Center for Human Services to service juveniles with mental health issues.
The Pioneer Center has a Juvenile Delinquency Program, which provides help for low-risk juveniles to high-risk juveniles who have been referred to the program by the court.
Ronica Patel, director of behavioral health at the Pioneer Center, said the center served 46 juveniles though the Juvenile Delinquency Program in the past fiscal year, and it is in constant contact with court services.