SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah lawmakers passed reforms to Utah’s juvenile justice system in 2017, they sought to make sure youngsters would not end up in the court system for minor offenses like truancy and disorderly conduct.
Instead, Utah now directs schools to handle such incidents on their own. And though the changes have shown promise in their first few years, they also pose a new challenge for students who require substance abuse and mental health treatment, according to Adam Cohen, the CEO Of Odyssey House, a network of drug and alcohol treatment programs in Utah and Nevada.
“So now, rightly so, the kids aren’t getting referred to the juvenile court because they shouldn’t be in the juvenile court, but the schools don’t know where to go,” Cohen told a working group of lawmakers, lawyers and others Friday at the Utah Capitol. “So there’s not this kind of uniform repository of where to send kids and what services are really available, and that’s a problem. We’re missing kids because of it.”
Juvenile courts had long been the link between youths in the system and treatment, referring them to certain centers and programs, Cohen said. Now, the community-based services are underutilized, he told members of the Criminal Code Evaluation Task Force.
Though teachers and counselors want to do the best for their students, they often don’t have information about the resources available, Cohen said. He urged lawmakers to help strengthen links from treatment programs to schools and pediatricians, who may be the first to spot concerning behavior and can help address it early on.
Those under 18 face their own obstacles to getting treatment. Homework and family obligations eat up much of their time, and many don’t have their own cars, Cohen noted.
“If they’re going to spend an hour on the bus going to treatment, an hour going home, they’re probably not going to go to treatment because that’s not convenient and it’s a barrier,” he said. Their parents may also juggle other priorities and may be ambivalent.
The kids aren’t getting referred to the juvenile court because they shouldn’t be in the juvenile court, but the schools don’t know where to go.
Programs within a school’s walls are ideal because they’re convenient and don’t require pulling youths out of their environment, he said. Odyssey House employees have begun working in the Salt Lake City School District, largely helping students who struggled with mental health issues, and many more are set to appear in the Granite School District soon.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said he believes the Weber Valley Youth Center in Ogden could help bridge the gap and be a model for the state. Children and teens can get crisis counseling there without having to officially be booked or have a mugshot taken, he said.
“If a school has an issue, if little Billy’s in a classroom and starts wigging out, the school can now call this facility and they have a team, they literally go in, in plain clothes,” he said. “The experts come to the scene instead of calling the cops.” The team generally includes a social worker and another person, potentially a law enforcement officer, he said.
Will Carlson, a deputy district Salt Lake County attorney, said his colleagues who work in mental health have told him there is a “drought of opportunity” for those who face mental illness but who don’t have drug or alcohol dependency.
Utah faces a hiring shortage for treatment centers in both realms, said Brent Kelsey with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
“There are gaps in terms of the number of people who need treatment in the community and those who are able to access it,” he added. While the state’s mental health system serves roughly 20,000 youth every year, it sees about 1,100 who primarily have substance abuse issues, he said.
“That doesn’t mean everybody gets the care they need. We know there are gaps and there are unfortunate incidents where people fall through the cracks,” he said.
The committee did not take action on the issue Friday. It is expected to meet again in coming months before the 2020 legislative session convenes in January.