Stop Putting Sick Children in Jail | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Posted on July 7, 2004

Arlington, VA — NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) today condemned state and local governments that warehouse children and adolescents with mental illnesses in the juvenile justice system—simply because adequate treatment and services in their communities are unavailable.

"We are spending money in all the wrong places," declared NAMI Maine executive director Carol Carothers, testifying on behalf of the national organization before a hearing of the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on a Congressional investigative report on the scandal.

The full text of NAMI’s testimony is available on-line at

"Youth with mental illnesses are being held in juvenile detention for the sole purpose of awaiting mental health treatment. It is hard to imagine a worse place to house a child. Surely we would not dream of placing a child with another serious illness, like cancer, in a juvenile detention center to await a hospital bed or community-based system."

In Maine, Carothers noted, 10 year old children may be housed with 20 year olds, where they are vulnerable to physical or sexual assaults. Keeping children in the community, however, leads to better outcomes and saves taxpayer dollars: $30,000 to provide intensive in-home services for a family for one year, compared to $80,000 to lock a child in a detention center.

In criminal justice settings, symptoms of mental illnesses are misinterpreted as disobedience, defiance, or threats. Well-meaning, but poorly-trained corrections officers respond with anger, discipline or force. Minor incidents escalate. Risks of harm increase. Many techniques used in correctional settings—like prolonged isolation and restraints—actually worsen symptoms, leading to greater acting out and self-harm, through self-mutilation or suicide.

The Congressional investigative report documents "a national crisis," Carothers said resulting in part from reduction or elimination of mental health services as states struggle to balance budgets. However, money cut from such services is not saved. "Instead it will be shifted to corrections budgets, a waste of the taxpayer’s money."

Carothers is one of 10 persons nationwide recently honored with a $120,000 award from the Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program, for efforts to reform Maine’s mental health and criminal justice systems. In her testimony, she also referred to a three-part investigative series, "Castaway Children," published by the Maine’s Portland Press Herald in 2002.

NAMI called on Congress to enact the:

  • Keeping Families Together Act (S.1704/H.R.3243) to provide grants to states to develop more comprehensive, coordinated community-based services for children.
  • Family Opportunity Act to allow families with children with serious disabilities to buy into Medicaid for essential services.
  • Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act to prohibit discriminatory limits on mental health benefits in private insurance coverage.
  • The Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act (S. 1194/H.R. 2387) to support jail diversion programs for treatment.

# # #

With more than 220,000 members and 1200 state and local affiliates, NAMI is the nation’s leading grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with severe mental illnesses including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and severe anxiety disorders.


Email: [email protected]


For all other marketing and communications needs and requests, please contact [email protected]

NAMI HelpLine is available M-F, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET. Call 800-950-6264,
text “helpline” to 62640, or chat online. In a crisis, call or text 988 (24/7).