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.

Wednesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Summer Jobs May Reduce Teen Violence, Study Says, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

Summer jobs may help reduce violence, according to a recent study that found that low-income Boston teens who held down summer jobs were less likely to engage in violence than teens without jobs.

The study, conducted by researchers at Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, surveyed more than 400 young people who obtained employment last summer through a State Street Foundation youth violence prevention program.

During the initial survey, 3 percent of young people involved with the program reported either threatening or attacking another person with a gun in the month prior to beginning their summer jobs. By the end of the program, however, just 1 percent of participants reported attacking or threatening someone with a firearm in the last month of the study.

The Importance of Sensory Integration Therapy, Special Education Law Blog

Sensory integration therapy (SIT) has been one of the treatment mainstays for thousands of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, or other developmental disorders.  According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), approximately 5 to 15% of children in the general population have sensory processing issues.  School-based and private occupational therapists and parents have brushed, swung, and bounced on balls countless children in an effort to improve their ability to process sensory input.  Yet, the effectiveness of this therapy, despite accolades it has received from therapists and parents, has been questioned.  Now a new study by Lang et al that assesses the benefits of SIT by reviewing 25 existing studies adds additional fuel to the debate.  In a nutshell, the study authors state that SIT is neither effective nor research-based and that agencies (such as schools) that are mandated to provide research-based interventions should not be using SIT.

Kansas Merges Juvenile System and Adult Correctional System, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

This month, a merger of Kansas’s juvenile justice system and adult correctional system goes into effect, with the state’s Juvenile Justice Authority (JJA) officially being incorporated into the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC.)

The consolidation is the result of an executive order proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback at the start of the state’s 2013 Legislative session. The merger, which took effect July 1, is strictly administrative; juvenile populations, while now under supervision from the KDOC, will not be combined with any adult correctional populations.

South Caroline is Faulted on Child Services, NYTimes.com

In South Carolina, people accused of sexually abusing children do not face trial for years. Children who report abuse are not interviewed for weeks. Churches often stand between victims and help.

Those were among the findings of a privately financed report that comes as South Carolina is working to shore up its child protective system. The state is facing lawsuits and legislative scrutiny after a series of deaths, rapes and other assaults on children who were in state custody.
The report was welcomed by Gov. Nikki R. Haley, who said it offered useful recommendations for improving how the state — both the government and its citizens — can better address childhood sexual trauma.