SOAR is a juvenile mental health court in Denton County, Texas, that helps young offenders with mental illness get the treatment they need while also holding them responsible for the crimes they have committed. It is a collaboration of the Denton County Court at Law No.1, the juvenile Probation Department, the Denton County district Attorney’s Office, and local defense attorneys. The court is an intensive, phased, six-month program focused on accountability, treatment, and compassion. The main goal is to avoid the placement of these children in a residential facility or lockdown detention center, keeping them with their families.
The focus on keeping the family involved is very important. Since there aren’t many residential treatment facilities in Texas, children end up going out of state. The risk of reoffending is lower if their treatment occurs with their family and in their community. This also allows the parents to develop tools necessary to help themselves and help their children, rather than being alone and overwhelmed with a problem they don’t have a solution to.
One half to three-fourths of youths in the juvenile justice system in America has serious mental health issues. These children are in a vicious cycle of offending and reoffending because there isn’t a program that worked for them.
The participants in this mental health court meet with their probation officers at least twice a week and attend court twice per month. In court, the children give an update on how the last two weeks have gone. Some children talk about how church involvement has helped center them and lessen strife in the home, others display new skills they’ve learned, such as singing. Those doing well in the program are rewarded with less strict rules and other incentives. When a report indicates that the child is not meeting their requirements, incentives are removed, the child may have to repeat a phase or possibly even result in placement in a facility.
The children also participate in activities sponsored by the mental health court. For example, experts have come into the court to talk to the children about cooking and proper etiquette. The children then take what they learn and use those skills in an event. By introducing the children to other interests, they are given the opportunity to discover something about themselves and gain interest in a hobby or skill they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to.
These activities are used as teaching tools. By teaching life skills–how to work together, communication skills, job skills, and proper emotional regulation–the children gain the tools they need to re-enter society and be contributing adults in their communities.
In order to ensure the success and efficacy of the program, no more than ten children out of the hundreds in the Denton County juvenile justice system are in this court at a time. An intensive screening process takes place as well, which includes interviews and mental health evaluations. All but sex offenders are eligible for consideration.
In the end, it’s all about giving these children a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Instead of being lost in a system that doesn’t know how to help them, they are given an opportunity to learn and grow, to develop the tools necessary to avoid recommitting, and become fully functioning members in society.
Burgess, D. (March 31, 2017). Judge launches new mental health court for juveniles. Denton Record-Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.dentonrc.com/news/news/2017/03/31/judge-launches-new-mental-health-court-juveniles
Roark, C. (May 17, 2017). Family, community projects central to juvenile mental health program’s efforts. The Leader. Retrieved from http://starlocalmedia.com/theleader/news/family-community-projects-central-to-juvenile-mental-health-program-s/article_52335ae0-3b3e-11e7-bb81-d7863c5017e0.html