Monday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Researchers Pursuing Novel Methods to Diagnose Autism, Education Week

A handful of recent studies are delving into new methods of screening children and adults for autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 88 children has this disorder, which affects communication, behavior, and socialization.

In one study, researchers suggest that “micromovements” some people with autism make when asked to point to a dot on a screen may be indicative of the disorder. These results have been published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.

Also, Google Ventures has provided funding to SynapDx Corp., which is in trials to predict the risk of autism though blood testing. The blood tests examine the ribonucleic acids, or RNA, that becomes visible when white blood cells in a blood sample are dissolved. The behavior of RNA can be linked to autism risk, the company says. The test could be used for children as young as two years old; the average age of diagnosis of autism is 4.5 years.

The Dreary State of Juvenile Mental Health Care, Inside and Outside the Justice System, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

When Linda Pace began her career as a public defender, things were different in DeKalb County, Ga. She recalls a system in the 1980s where the Department of Human Resources and local courts worked in tandem, with several court psychologists and special education teachers on staff. Young people in the juvenile justice system routinely received evaluations to pinpoint educational disabilities, and the local school systems regularly helped refer students to therapists. There were even more Medicaid services available to youth and families.

But with sweeping changes in the 1990s — the era of the “super-predator, mythic nightmare,” she said — Pace noticed a gradual decline in the quality of system services for juveniles. “The focus became criminal logic in the juvenile system, and the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the court kind of changed their focus to meet the needs of the protection of the community,” she said. “And that became inconsistent sometimes, with the needs of children that have mental or behavioral disabilities.”

The DJJ, Pace believes, is no longer a viable entry point for youth requiring mental health services, with numerous “gate-keeping devices” in place ensuring that only the most absolutely critical kids get into residential treatment.

Currently, Georgia’s $307 million DJJ budget allocates only 13 percent towards community-based juvenile detention alternative programs, with 2 percent of annual funds going towards intensive, at-home therapeutic programs. Pace said that services are so scant in the state that she often advises the parents of children with severe mental health needs to relocate to other parts of the country.

The de-emphasis of mental health funding in Georgia, however, is not an aberration across the United States. From 2009 until 2011, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that 31 states had enacted major mental health budget cuts. And in terms of overall mental health care quality, the national portrait is even grimmer; in a nationwide analysis conducted in 2009, NAMI scored 27 state systems — among them, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Texas — with overall rankings of “D” or worse.

Sugary Beverages Linked to Higher B.M.I. in Young Children, The New York Times

It sounds like another page from the files of obvious research: a study published in the journal Pediatrics reveals a link between regular consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (dubbed S.S.B.’s) and higher body mass index scores in 2- to 5-year-olds. Children who regularly drank sugar-sweetened sodas, sports beverages or fruit juice (as opposed to 100 percent fruit juice drinks) had both higher B.M.I.’s and “higher weight status” than those who drank them infrequently or not at all.

Sounds like an obvious case of consequences, but as with most research, this paper carefully notes a link, not necessarily a cause. In the same study, researchers also found associations between higher B.M.I.’s and television watching and failing to drink milk. Does increased television watching lead to more advertising viewed and thus to more S.S.B. consumption, or does the heavier child watch more television? Do the sugar-sweetened beverages squeeze out the milk, or does a refusal to drink milk lead to drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages?

It may not much matter, in this case, whether the egg precedes the chicken or vice versa. But as policy makers contemplate writing laws and pushing for change to address the causes of increasing rates of childhood obesity in this country, S.S.B. manufacturers have consistently lobbied against everything from taxes on their product to laws like New York City’s attempted ban on large sugary drinks. A lot of money (more than $40 million in 2009, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest) has been expended to convince the public as a whole, and our legislative bodies in particular, that correlation isn’t causation on this one.

Alexandra Wolf

About Alexandra Wolf

Alex Wolf is a third year law student at the University of Houston Law Center. In 2010, she received a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Prior to attending law school, Alex worked as a paralegal at the Lanier Law Firm’s Los Angeles office. During college, Alex interned for Covenant House Texas, a shelter for at-risk youth as well as for Conscious Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating hunger for children and adults alike. Alex also served as an undergraduate research assistant analyzing deviant and suicidal tendencies and behaviors. This summer, Alex worked as a law clerk for Berg & Androphy, a firm specializing in white-collar defense and qui tam actions. Alex is on the Houston Journal of International Law and serves as secretary for the Immigration and Human Rights Law Society.

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