COLUMBUS, Ohio — The state should transfer mentally ill juvenile inmates to psychiatric facilities as soon as possible and find money for their treatment, according to a new report on the status of Ohio's youth prison system.
The Department of Youth Services holds some of the most acutely mentally ill youth in the state, who would be transferred to more appropriate psychiatric treatment facilities if they were hospitalized or in other settings outside detention, the report said.
The report filed in federal court Thursday also said repeatedly placing mentally ill youth in seclusion affects decisions about whether they should be held beyond the end of their sentences.
Under a court settlement, Youth Services must "strive to prevent deterioration or exacerbation of mental health symptoms and needless isolation for behaviors caused by mental health issues," according to the report by court-appointed monitors Will Harrell and Terry Schuster.
Youth Services and a state interagency committee on mental health and juvenile justice are looking at long-term fixes. Thursday's report raised the point of more immediate action.
The state said it "provides comprehensive behavioral health services" to youth including two mental health units for boys and one for girls, each staffed with full-time psychologists and social workers, according to DYS spokeswoman Andrea Kruse.
Ohio has procedures to move mentally ill offenders to psychiatric hospitals, Kruse said, but added: "because of the violent behavior that many of the youth present, it is often difficult to find placement."
The report is the third annual summary reviewing Youth Services' efforts to make prisons safer following a 2004 lawsuit that alleged a culture of violence.
Much has changed since that lawsuit, as the state has closed several detention facilities and the population has sunk to about 600 inmates, almost all boys. But violence continues in the system.
Most juvenile offenders in Ohio are now held in county-run facilities around the state in an attempt to keep them closer to family and away from a prison-like atmosphere that could increase the chances of them committing more crimes.
As a result, the juveniles who end up in state custody are among the toughest youthful offenders in Ohio. They're older — an average age of nearly 18 — and serve sentences now averaging more than a year.
This has created new challenges for the state in its attempt to treat them.
In August and September, gang-related violence exploded in the system, with 11 large-scale brawls involving multiple youths. Teens were breaking out of their cells for fights, and numerous guards and juvenile inmates were injured.
By the end of September, 20 staff members were on leave because of injuries from assaults, and teens not involved in the violence were refusing to go to school or therapy sessions out of fear for their safety.
The report recommended that Youth Services address gang violence in part by expanding recreational and job-related activities.
"Youth consistently report that they have too much time with nothing to do, and that gang-related activities fill the void," the report said.
Among other mental health issues the report addressed:
—Mental health experts found that programs weren't monitored to measure their effectiveness and whether they could be improved, and care provided to youth wasn't being systematically reviewed.
—Monitors found shortages in psychiatric care hours and significant vacancies for psychologists, psychiatric nurses and social workers.
—In the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility in suburban Columbus, monitors found that several juveniles with poor school attendance had mental health concerns that needed attention and that "in many cases, mental health team members were not aware of the problems these youth were having in school."