Mental Health & Juvenile Justice

We know that children are involved with the justice system when families are overwhelmed and cannot find help elsewhere; children lack safe and healthy responses to daily events; and schools rely on police for answers rather than changing their culture.

Federal studies suggest that as many as 60-75 percent of incarcerated youth have a mental health disorder and 20 percent have a severe disorder. As many as half have substance abuse problems.

Children in the justice system are disproportionately poor and children of color. Along with their underlying mental disorder, many have histories of other problems that have not been addressed, including: physical and/or sexual abuse; parental drug or alcohol use; poor school performance or truancy; family discord, and learning disabilities.

Research indicates that clinical care that treats underlying psychological needs of children in trouble works to change their life course and deter them from juvenile justice involvement.

Models for Change

In 2005, MHAPA became a partner in the Models for Change project, which is was funded by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. As a Models for Change partner, MHAPA provided technical assistance to both state and local teams working to reform the Juvenile Justice system in Pennsylvania, under the Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Targeted Area of Interest (TAI). A major achievement for this work was the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Mental Health/Juvenile Justice Joint Policy Statement, which was adopted by all state child serving systems and is now the basis of the county-level Children’s Integrated Planning Process.

In November 2009, a groundbreaking monograph—Family Involvement in PA’s Juvenile Justice System monograph—was published through a joint effort of the PA Council of Chief Juvenile Probation Officers, Models for Change-PA, and MHAPA.  This monograph serves as the beginning of an important dialogue between all the partners—families, youth, victims, and system professionals—as was the case with the development of the original Pennsylvania Balanced and Restorative Justice Monograph. Its purpose is to identify and develop strategies and models that will support family involvement in the juvenile justice system in effective and measurable ways and that are rooted within balanced and restorative justice practice. Subsequent efforts by these partners and the larger Juvenile Justice system will expand upon the myriad of issues this monograph can only start to explore.


Giving families and youth access to information about the juvenile justice process is critical to good outcomes.  Trained advocates can support such access. Many counties in Pennsylvania fund Family Advocates who help families access information and services.  These county Family Advocates are listed under Advocacy Resources.

If a child is in one of Pennsylvania’s state operated youth development centers and youth forestry camps, the child and family have access to External Youth Advocates.  These independent youth advocates help ensure that the youth’s fundamental rights are being protected and assists them and their families with issues that arise regarding the facility and its services.  This program is operated by MHAPA.  Read more in MHAPA’s External Youth Advocate Program brochureFind External Youth Advocates by facility.


Click here for additional reading materials about Juvenile Justice issues in PA and here for youth focused organizations.