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

photo courtesy of: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-fgyCgFTctWQ/UNVKh7EogwI/AAAAAAAAAJc/1drH3uyEgQ4/s400/menthalhealthissuesforoct-3post.jpg

National Juvenile Defender Center releases Trial Manual for Defense Attorneys in Juvenile Delinquency Cases 

Schaible Children to Get Court Ordered Medical Care, The Philadelphia Enquirer

Herbert and Catherine Schaible’s seven [remaining] children were placed in temporary foster care after the couple told police they did not bring their 8-month-old, Brandon, to a doctor when he showed serious signs of illness last month. The Schaibles – members of a church that shuns medical care – are on probation for the 2009 death of their 2-year-old son, Kent.

While authorities await the results of Brandon Schaible’s autopsy, child welfare workers are monitoring the medical needs of the seven other Schaible children, said Mythri Jayaraman, a lawyer for Catharine Schaible, after a probationary status hearing Monday at the Criminal Justice Center.

At a Family Court hearing last week, a judge ordered Department of Human Services workers to ensure the children’s “routine and special” medical needs were being met, Jayaraman said . . .  All of the children have received medical examinations and any needed immunizations, and appear to be healthy, Hoof said.

Mother’s Quest to Find Treatment for Son Highlights Mental Health System’s Limitations: Chicago Woman Says She Faced Many Barriers to Acquiring Long-Term Care for Child, Who Spiraled Downward into Drug Use, Incarceration, Chicago Tribune

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Marciano bounced from emergency room to jail to the streets. When he believes he is Jesus Christ or Tupac Shakur or tells his mother she needs to “watch her back,” Gabel said, she double-checks the locks on her house in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood and alerts her neighbors that her son might come home. She estimates he has been hospitalized 45 times.

Americans have longed for better ways to prevent and treat mental illness in children for years, and the desire is especially amplified after school shootings such as Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. The haunting questions stubbornly remain the same: Are parents clueless? In denial? Why don’t they just do something about their troubled children?

Gabel has tried so hard for so long that she is emotionally and financially drained, she said. Her quest illuminates the challenges of navigating a mental health care system that many say is broken, leaving too many children and young adults with psychosis and nowhere to turn . . .

Of the 15 million U.S. youths with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, less than half will get medical attention, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  There are treatments that work, “but frequently you cannot get them to the people in crisis,” said Susan Resko, executive director of the Balanced Mind Foundation, a national children’s mental health advocacy group based in Chicago.

The hurdles are especially high in Illinois, which slashed more than $100 million in mental health services from 2009 to 2011 and perennially dwells at the bottom of state rankings, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. During Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget address in March, he emphasized mental illness should be a “top priority” and proposed an additional $25 million investment to improve care.

Gabel, an administrative assistant and mother of three, fears her 24-year-old middle child is now too ill to respond to medical intervention, not unlike a cancer patient who ignored early symptoms and is left with a body riddled with tumors.  “He’s just so far gone now,” she said . . .

“My mom has fought long and hard for that boy,” Stephanie Marciano said. “She’s talked to anybody and everybody that she possibly could, and he’s just fallen through the cracks every time.”

Specific events in Marciano’s life — such as the state’s decision to not provide him with an Individual Care Grant and his incarcerations — stand out as turning points in what his 26-year-old brother calls “a slow, gradual spiral downward.”

“He should have been one of the ones accepted, and he got shunned,” said Tim Marciano, who works in banking. “In the meantime, he was just rotting in prison, when he should have been getting help in a mental health facility somewhere. Look at where it’s gotten him.”

Ex-Browerville Athlete Admits to Sexual Assaults on Teammates, Minneapolis StarTribune

A former Browerville High School student has admitted that he was among athletes who sexually assaulted teammates in incidents that stretched from the small western Minnesota community to a downtown Minneapolis hotel.

Seth Kellen, 19, pleaded guilty Monday in Todd County District Court to felony fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct for using force or coercion during sexual contact. Specifically, Kellen admitted to digitally penetrating a 17-year-old teammate in March 2012 while the basketball team was in Minneapolis for the state tournament.

Kellen also was accused of pulling down his pants while in a Minneapolis parking-ramp elevator with his teammates and two student managers, ages 11 and 12. He then jumped on teammates’ backs and hit them with his penis, the charges say. He had also been accused of sexually assaulting football and basketball teammates numerous times . . .

When sentenced, Kellen is expected to be given a 30-day jail term and placed on probation for 10 years. Terms of probation include being assessed for anger management and counseled about sexual boundaries. If he complies and doesn’t violate probation, the felony case will be dismissed, said County Attorney Chuck Rasmussen.

In November, co-defendant Connor S. Burns, 19, pleaded to an agreement that will dismiss charges against him if he has no similar offenses during his five years of probation. Burns will not have to serve any time. Another player, Seth Christiansen, was tried as a juvenile and also came to a plea agreement.

Attorneys for Kellen and Burns had argued that the alleged assaults were part of a common culture of horseplay and hazing that’s gone on for years at the school in Browerville, which has about 790 residents. They insisted that the acts weren’t sexual.

Wednesday’s Children and the Law Blog

The Truth About Mental Health and Violence, Indy Star

Rates of homicide and other violent deaths in the United States dramatically exceed those of any other industrialized, high-income nation. Diagnosable mental health conditions are not the cause of violence in the United States, but oftentimes the result of it. The trauma that results from violence may in fact be a significant precursor to the development of many mental and substance use conditions.

Persons with severe mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence — as they can be easy prey to violence. Some live a marginalized existence as a result of mental illness and subsequent loss of income and assets, and may become targets for theft, mugging and rape. Incarceration of large numbers of people with mental and substance-use conditions in county jails and correction facilities may subject them to isolation or, worse, violent victimization . . .

People with mental health conditions alone are no more likely to be violent than other people. A 2009 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that mental illness alone is not an adequate basis for a prediction of dangerousness, as “the incidence of violence was higher for people with severe mental illness, but only significantly so for those with co-occurring substance abuse and/or dependence. . . severe mental illness alone did not predict future violence; it was associated instead with historical (past violence, juvenile detention, physical abuse, parental arrest record), clinical (substance abuse, perceived threats), dispositional (age, sex, income), and contextual (recent divorce, unemployment, victimization) factors.”

. . . Included in ACA is the provision of mental health and substance abuse parity. If implemented properly, the ACA could provide the necessary services to those in need of behavioral health services in a way that is comparable to physical health services . . . this is important as substance abuse services are critical to those who have a co-occurring mental illness. Similarly, specialty services for children with trauma must be included. As the state begins implementation, we must insist on a robust package of behavioral health services for children and adults that includes a medication benefit that makes certain that everyone is able to obtain the medicine that is so critical to their recovery. Workforce development will be an issue that must be resolved as well, as the need for mental health and addiction professionals will greatly exceed their availability. Educational assistance for these professions might be indicated.

‘Phoenix’s Law’ would Double Penalties for Animal Cruelty, The Buffalo News

Phoenix, the 5 1/2-month-old Jack Russell terrier recovering from being intentionally set on fire Oct. 29 [by teens], hasn’t been forgotten.  Thursday, Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan . . . announced he will introduce “Phoenix’s Law” legislation, which would double maximum jail terms from two years to four, and fines from $5,000 to $10,000, for people convicted of aggravated cruelty to companion animals, a felony.

[New York] ranks 38th, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, with Illinois having the toughest [animal protection] laws and Kentucky the weakest. New York animal protection laws fall under the state’s Department of Agriculture & Markets, with the companion animal law on the books expressly excluding farm animals.

The proposed [NY] legislation also would require a juvenile convicted of animal abuse to have a psychiatric evaluation and treatment. “Animal cruelty is considered by many experts to be a leading indicator in the predisposition for future acts of violence. Often someone who abuses a vulnerable pet as a child grows up to abuse vulnerable adults and children. This law will help identify somebody with that predisposition, and assist in reducing the possibility of future acts of violence and abuse,” Ryan said.

Defense Rests in Case of Missing Florida Foster Child, The Seattle Times

The defense rested in the case of a South Floriday woman accused of killing her 4 year old foster child more than 10 years ago.  Lawyers for 67-year-old Geralyn Graham on Tuesday focused on attacking the credibility of three jailhouse informants who implicated Graham in the Rilya Wilson’s killing.

Also testifying for the defense were corrections officials who say star prosecution witness Robin Lunceford was given preferential treatment behind bars.  Lunceford also got a life prison sentence reduced to just 10 years in exchange for her testimony that Graham confessed.  Graham did not testify in her own defense but has insisted on her innocence. Rilya’s body has never been found.

Prosecutors now have the chance to put on a brief rebuttal case. Closing arguments are expected next Tuesday.