Between 65 and 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have mental health disorders, with some studies estimating that at least 20 percent of these youth have severe disorders that significantly impair functioning. Many of these youth are entitled to adequate and responsive mental health services through federal programs like Medicaid’s Early Periodic Screening Diagnosis and Treatment Program (EPSDT), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Despite these entitlements to care, by and large, the systems that serve youth fail to provide mental health services that address the individualized needs of justice-involved youth.

There is tremendous potential for advocates and system actors to use these entitlements to get youth individualized, appropriate care. Each actor in the juvenile justice system can play a critical role in helping to ensure youth get the services they need. This paper will discuss how advocates and court partners can better meet the mental health needs of children in the juvenile justice system through these entitlements.

Key Take Away Points

  • Despite powerful federal entitlements to care, far too few youth in the juvenile justice system receive appropriate mental health services. Barriers --including as a lack of services in juvenile halls, uncertainty about future placements and inadequate transition planning between placements—hinders these youth’s access to services. Moreover, many advocates, probation officers, and judges are unaware of how to use federal entitlements to push for necessary services for individual children.
  • System actors can improve access to mental health services by employing a strengths-based practice approach, which focuses on engaging youth and families and recognizing that they have the ability to change behaviors. Employing this approach can move the system away from being deficits-focused and towards teaching youth the skills they need to grow into self-sufficient adults.
  • Each player in the court process (defense attorneys, district attorneys, probation officers, judges) can play a role in improving access to services.
  • Collaboration and partnership, through the use of multidisciplinary teams or family group conferencing, can be used to identify strengths and needs, connect youth to individualized services, and build upon natural supports to help reduce recidivism and improve outcomes in the community. In many jurisdictions, state law provides avenues to access such multidisciplinary teams while advocates in other jurisdictions may be able to use other pre-existing structures to meet these goals. This team approach can help all players work more efficiently in improving outcomes for justice-involved youth.

Author Biography

Fiza Quraishi is a Staff Attorney at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), specializing in the intersections between the child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice systems. Prior to becoming a staff attorney in 2010, Fiza was an Equal Justice Fellow at NCYL, and focused on improving access to mental health services for children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. She received a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and a B.A. from Barnard College, Columbia University.

Hannah Benton is a staff attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, focusing on juvenile justice reform. She received a J.D. from Yale Law School and a B.A. from the University of Chicago.


We would like to thank Shae Blood, NCYL law clerk, for her help with cite checking.