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Published: Monday, 10/10/2005

Mental illnesses swell total in lockup; domestic violence tied to health issues

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Second of three parts.

He's 14 years old, and it was early, so his disheveled hair and sleep-filled face this recent morning could be excused.

Staring hard at a visitor, Robert briefly pondered the question: Why do you beat your mother?

"She makes me mad."

But why smack her? Bite her? Kick her? Point a BB gun at her and squeeze the trigger?

He shrugged, "I mean really mad."

It was a simple answer to a numbingly complex question. But with all the counselors, probation officers, doctors, and therapists this teenager has seen so far, it still might be the best answer yet. Certainly there's his litany of mental-health diagnoses and the horrific images etched into his memory - his father raping his mother among them. But at the root of it all is this: Robert is mad. Really, really mad.

Robert, whose name The Blade has changed to protect his identity, is also among a growing population of damaged, mentally ill youngsters who are filling up courtrooms, detention beds, and counseling offices after they've punched, kicked, dragged, and otherwise lashed out against family members.

According to a report by the Lucas County Juvenile Court, domestic violence cases are on the increase at a startling rate - from just 70 in 1985 to 681 last year. Of that total, 503 were held overnight. This year, it's on track to log more than 715 cases by Dec. 31.

The reasons for the surge are not clear, and a two-year study of 875 offenders in 2001 and 2002 was not designed to look at how many of those offenders were mentally ill.

But judges, probation officers, prosecutors, and counselors say more and more kids are walking - handcuffed - through the heavy security doors of the Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center with tongue-twister diagnoses like oppositional defiance disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some are severely depressed; others are bipolar.

Mix in everyday stresses at school or pressures at home and the impulsiveness and immaturity of adolescence, and it can be a combustible combination.

"[Youths] don't have the levels of control over emotions at times, and they don't have the life experiences to draw on," said Kathleen Baird, psychologist for the juvenile court. "Developmentally and even cognitively, their brains are still growing."

Court personnel say mentally ill youngsters are among the most frustrating of delinquents because there's no easy fix.

That means they're often the most chronic offenders.

According to the study, 141 of the 875 offenders had been charged at least three times with domestic assault.

It's not clear how many of those 141 suffer mental illnesses.

Robert is a case study of the extreme.

The triggers to his violence seem absurd: an argument over a can of soda pop or a pack of gum, but nearly two dozen times the episodes have ended with the metal click of handcuffs.

For a while, judges and magistrates handed down escalating punishments when Robert stood in front of them: lectures, orders to write apology letters, and later time behind bars.

It changed little.

These days, there's almost a collective throwing of hands in the air from the red-brick court building on Spielbusch Avenue. Magistrates during his last few hearings have instructed the boy to continue counseling.

Simply put, Robert doesn't process consequences and threats the way most of us do, said Tony Garrett, administrator of the juvenile lock-up.

"His criminal behavior is not because he's a criminal, it's because he doesn't know how to cope," Mr. Garrett said. "He's a mental-health blueprint He bites plugs out of his own flesh. He's low-functioning. He's attention deficit disorder."

And that costs taxpayers a lot.

At $134.19 a night, Robert's 240 nights locked up has amounted to more than $32,000 just to house him.

But are kids really suffering more mental illnesses these days or just being better diagnosed?

It depends who you talk to.

Many juveniles may spend the night in lock-up these days as private health care curtails mental-health services, as funding dries up for other public services, and as teachers and principals turn to the police to deal with classroom violence.

And some parents are simply at wit's end.

"You have to take a whole person and the family situation into account," said Jackie Martin, director of the Lucas County Mental Health Board, which funds three mental-health workers, seven days a week, at the detention center.

"Some of these families have a multitude of problems, [such as a lack of] employment or education, welfare, juvenile court. They're trying to manage all these things at a given time. Many times they're not equipped to deal with - on top of everything else - a kid who has behavioral problems," she said.

But even families that seem to have everything going for them can find themselves in juvenile court, trying to work out tensions that have turned violent, said Desiree Lyonette, one of 22 full and part-time juvenile court mediators.

In a downstairs conference room, Ms. Lyonette and other mediators sit down with troubled families.

Sometimes, she said, the problem is adolescence bravado or a lack of communication. Sometimes it's mental illness. Sometimes it's a continuing cycle of violence.

"We have those kids who have been perfect until they're 15 or so and suddenly it's not that they're doing drugs or anything; it's that life is coming in on them, and they needed someone to communicate with," she said.

In South Toledo, Robert and his mother have a well-worn routine with counselors and medications. The once-slender boy has grown heavier and taller and is just more than three years away from a new label: adult.

"When he turns 18, at that point, I guess I've done all I can," his mother said. "He's going to have to use his head. If he disrespects me and continues to knock on me, he will be gone."

She sighs as her son disappears into a hallway in their comfortable South Toledo apartment.

"I just want him to grow up to be okay, you know?"

Contact Robin Erb at: robinerb@theblade.com or 419-724-6133.



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