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Mental health courts giving Utah teenagers second chances

‘People won’t judge me. I can just be honest about my situation,’ teen graduate says.

SHARE Mental health courts giving Utah teenagers second chances

Third District Juvenile Court Judge Elizabeth Knight conducts court graduation day for a young man at the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. The program allows youth charged in Utah’s juvenile court system and diagnosed with mental illness to have their charges reduced or dropped altogether if they participate in therapy.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — One teenager is in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court on a charge of stealing a gun. Others face allegations like assault and criminal mischief.

Like each young defendant in Judge Elizabeth Knight’s courtroom on a Wednesday in December, they elected to have their cases handled in a special court focusing on their mental health. 

Eight teenagers — some in hoodies, others in lip gloss — sit side by side in a space typically occupied by a jury. A parent, probation officer or another supporter stands with them when it’s their turn to chat with a judge.

Some of the teens shift their weight and stare at the ground as they promise Knight they will give their mentors a chance or describe how they are working on talking about their feelings.

“They’re not the armed robbers of the world, usually. Most of them are struggling within their own — just small — environments,” said Knight, the juvenile judge who runs the program and rewards stellar behavior with Gatorade and snacks.

“They’re the kids at school who are constantly getting in trouble. They’re the kids in the behavioral unit. And so a lot of their contacts with adults are not very positive. Their parents are sort of feeling overwhelmed.”

Her juvenile mental health court metes out more incentives than penalties, operating on the notion that disorders ranging from autism to post-traumatic stress should not be the reason children end up in the criminal justice system. Youth are largely ordered into community-based mental health services and away from detention centers.

“My wish for all of you this holiday season is peace, and that means no fighting with your family and friends, and instead using the skills that you have when things are really hard,” she told the group at the hearing in mid-December.

Knight is intent on helping the youths recognize their own mental health needs, stay on top of medication and therapy and see value in themselves. She has been at the helm of the court for the last few years, where she mostly handles assault or criminal mischief cases stemming from incidents within the teenagers’ own homes.

At the recent hearing, the teens deposited marbles in a jar — one marble for showing up and another for taking prescribed medication — that when filled means a pizza party. Extra kudos were given to a 14-year-old boy who found his way to court on his own.

If they keep up on check-ins with a judge, therapist and probation officers, most will eventually have their cases dismissed or reduced. The requirements are strict, beginning with once-a-week court dates that gradually begin to spread out. Yet most will graduate successfully from the voluntary program.

They have its resources and the commitment of its employees to help them.

Probation officers like Shana Miller take late-night calls from parents at their wits’ end and work on plans to improve dynamics in a home by setting rules and helping improve communication.

While the court doesn’t limit who can participate, a prosecutor must approve each case. Teens must also have a diagnosis. Though the range of qualifying conditions is broader than in Utah’s adult mental health courts. It’s not uncommon for the teens to have started using alcohol and drugs.

Families are encouraged to attend their kids’ hearings, but such support isn’t needed in order to graduate. Many are being raised by single parents or grandparents; others are in the care of foster families.

The Salt Lake City youth court began in 2006 as others sprouted up around the country. Utah’s 1st District Court has introduced the program, also called care court, in Brigham City and Logan.

The approach keeps vulnerable teens from being funneled further into the system, said Nubia Pena, a former juvenile defender now at the head of the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs. Defense attorneys and prosecutors — normally at odds — work as a team in the courtroom, Pena said earlier this month when the court was honored by the governor’s office.

The collaborative spirit was on display in Knight’s courtroom, which erupted in cheers when she awarded a certificate of completion to the 16-year-old boy with the gun charge. His case will now be dismissed.

“People won’t judge me. I can just be honest about my situation,” he replied when the judge asked him what he liked about the special court. “I just want to be successful.”

Nate, who asked that only his first name to be used, said he smoked marijuana and wanted to fit in, so he started taking pills in high school, then began using cocaine and smoking crack. He said he took the gun from someone he knew when he was using drugs, but he’s past that type of thing now.

Now seven months sober, Nate said he is in the care of state child welfare managers as his mom faces her own challenges. His next goal is to get a job in fast food in order to save up for a car.

“At the beginning it was like, ‘Oh. The tunnel’s very far and I can’t see the light,” he said after court. “But I’m in the light. It feels good.”

Defense attorney Ramzi Hamady praised Nate’s resilience. Prosecutor Robert Neve fought tears as he reflected on Nate’s growth, in part by quoting a song from “Frozen 2.”

In Ogden’s 2nd District Court, Judge Jeffrey Noland runs a similar special juvenile court geared toward youngsters with substance abuse issues. He said he has come to realize that an untreated mental health problem often drives the behaviors of teens in his courtroom and is hoping to start a separate mental health court there in the near future.

“You get to know their struggles, you get to know what they do well, what worries them,” he said. “You want to see them succeed more than anything.”