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FL Youth Justice, Mental Units Leave Troubled Kids on Streets

The case of Florida's juvenile “Bonnie and Clyde” ended with Nicole Jackson, 14, hospitalized with eight gunshot wounds and charged as an adult with armed burglary and attempted murder of a police officer. A boy, 12, who had joined her in an escape from a group home, faced similar charges as a juvenile. Volusia County sheriff’s deputies had been called repeatedly to her house in Deltona, Fl., responding to complaints she was stealing neighbors’ pets, breaking windows in a rage, trying to set the house on fire. Sheriff Mike Chitwood blasted the adolescent “desperadoes” and blamed a juvenile justice system that he said was leaving a growing number of troubled children on the streets to grow into dangerous habitual felons, the New York Times reports.

For years, Nicole had cycled in and out of mental hospitals, foster care and group homes, one of tens of thousands of children Florida orders each year into crisis mental health custody. Nicole was placed in five group homes, one foster home and four mental hospitals in the two years after she was removed from her mother’s custody. She was committed to psychiatric facilities on emergency mental health holds dozens of times during the course of her childhood. In a state still reeling from the mass murder of 17 people at a Parkland high school in 2018 — killed by a teenager with a history of mental health challenges — juvenile health advocates say Nicole’s case raises serious questions about how a child could have had so many interactions with police officers, social service agencies and psychiatrists without ever getting the long-term therapy that might have broken the dangerous cycle. The answer may be Florida’s chronic underfunding of mental health services as the population has soared. A state grand jury in 2020 called the mental health system a “mess,” noting that it provides less funding per capita for mental health care and treatment than any other state, and is managed by a patchwork of private agencies.

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