By Karen de Sá
He is only 11 and has spent most of the past year locked up, the youngest resident in Santa Clara County's juvenile hall. He is so small, counselors say they worry about breaking his arms when they restrain him to control his tantrums.
Unsure what else to do, they walk him outside because looking at flowers calms him down. And they've promised him a yo-yo for good behavior.
This bubbly, round-faced boy who can be seen skipping down the halls of the detention center is deeply disturbed — and facing felony charges that he fondled a small girl in his neighborhood. But the incarceration of a child barely old enough for middle school among teenagers with violent pasts and gang ties is outraging observers.
"The use of juvenile detention as a mental health hospital of last resort is inappropriate, unacceptable and shouldn't be done," said Patrick Gardner, deputy director of the National Center for Youth Law, speaking generally.
While most everyone involved in the boy's case agrees, there is little consensus about what else to do with him. Months of attempts to place him in a proper setting have failed.
"The average counselor at juvenile hall won't even know how to begin to address" his needs, said group counselor Eric Polk, who is among those providing one-on-one supervision for the boy. "We're not trained in the mental health area."
Special accommodations have had to be made in the 390-bed juvenile hall on Guadalupe Parkway, typically reserved for more seasoned criminal offenders ages 13 to 18.
One reason the case, now being handled by Superior Court Judge Paul Bernal in juvenile mental health court, has dragged on so long is the complex legal arguments over the boy's competency. A negotiation has been under way for weeks among the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, a court-appointed lawyer for the boy and other players weighing whether he is able to understand the proceedings.
Outside court hearings, the boy has sat next to his mother, clutching a stuffed anteater.
Confidentiality laws shroud the process in secrecy. But sources familiar with the situation say that while the boy's age and length of time locked up make his a rare case, his circumstances reveal a common problem in California: There are few detention alternatives for severely mentally ill children who are accused of serious crimes.
Youth advocates say treatment in a homelike setting is the best alternative. In other parts of the state and country, he would likely be in a foster home with specially trained parents, a treatment-based group home or a psychiatric facility. While Santa Clara County has tried some of those arrangements, the combination of the boy's youth, mental illness and sex-offense charge has made that difficult. And some observers say the county has been too quick to focus on punitive rather than therapeutic measures.
The case is all the more striking given that as recently as March, county officials responded with alarm to Mercury News reports that a 10-year-old had spent five days in the juvenile hall for a similar offense, along with siblings ages 11 and 12. Officials declared the detention an extreme rarity and "a mistake."
Yet the South Bay boy — who entered the hall just days after his 11th birthday — remains there today, more than 10 months later.
"I'm really scared of how he's going to turn out with all of this," said his mother, Laurie, whose last name is not being published to protect her son's privacy. "He's turned into a whole different kid."
Court and probation officials declined to comment, citing confidentiality.
David Avila, the boy's court-appointed lawyer, offered only that the case presents no easy answers. Competency is considered the most challenging area of California juvenile law, further complicated by very young defendants and by doctors who can offer conflicting opinions to the judge.
The law is unclear on what might happen to the boy if he's found incompetent; the options could range from placing him in a regional mental health center to sending him out of state or even throwing out the charges.
Meanwhile, the jail-like setting of juvenile hall appears to be adding depression and anxiety to the boy's other conditions: bipolar and attention-deficit disorders, intermittent explosiveness and hyperactivity. He throws food at hall staffers and stuffs clothes in the toilet.
"Sometimes he doesn't want to go back to his room because he knows it's a cell," Polk said. "He doesn't want those four walls closing in on him."
At least one psychologist has reported to the court that the juvenile justice system cannot provide the intensive psychiatric and special-education services the boy needs.
The boy's mother said his explosions began in nursery school. Reliant since age 5 on numerous medications, he's twice been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities. He has struck family members and tried to leap from a moving car. And his mother reports that he himself was sexually abused by an older child when he was the same age as the girl he is accused of fondling.
Yet while acknowledging her son needs intensive therapy and supervision, Laurie remains distraught over the lengthy incarceration. She worries about the East Coast residential treatment centers the court is considering sending him to and says the separation from family is already breaking him down.
During one hall visit, Laurie found bruises where her son had tied socks around his neck. "He says he wants to come home so bad he'd rather kill himself," she said.
According to probation reports, attempts have been made to get the boy out of the hall. In September, he was sent to a nearby home for emotionally disturbed children, but that lasted only a week: He was arrested for assault and vandalism after breaking windows and a dresser in a rage, injuring a staff member.
In November, the court tried again, this time at a Northern California treatment center. But on Feb. 3, he was back in juvenile hall. His mother said he violated probation by running away — a desperate attempt she believes was aimed at getting back to her.
Gardner, whose Oakland nonprofit is active in the local mental health court, said he could not comment on specifics of the boy's case. But he stressed the "enormously harmful" effects of incarcerating young children. "A red flag should go up when a very young child is detained, and that flag should become a siren if the detention extends beyond a very short time period.
"The real challenge," Gardner added, "is to develop home-based or homelike settings for children with severe mental illness."
Recently, the boy himself weighed in, asking a counselor if his mom could just stick him in her pocket and take him home.
Laurie said lawyers advise her to douse such hopes: "They say you need to tell him he's never coming home, just get that out of his head."
Boy, 11, has spent nearly a year in Santa Clara County juvenile hall - San Jose Mercury News
My Two Cents -
After I read this story I couldnt help but feel heartbroken for all involved. Yes including the 11 year old accused.
All I can think is what a shame!