By Ed Brock
Clayton County's most recent grand jury has recommended that more space and staff be provided for the Regional Youth Detention Center in Lovejoy.
Youthful offenders charged with lesser crimes should be sent to diversion programs to save bed space for more violent offenders, the grand jury also recommended.
"We were informed by staff that children with severe mental problems are being housed that should be placed in other facilities," the grand jury also reported.
That struck home for Jonesboro psychologist Whatley Fenlon. Fenlon was just at the RYDC last week, doing an evaluation on a patient of his who is now in the center on charges of aggravated assault.
"I went down there to see if I could get him into an outdoor therapeutic setting instead of being just locked up," Fenlon said.
The grand jury's recommendations did not go unheeded by staff at the RYDC. But while the work currently under way to expand the facility does not include more bed space, the facility is already doing everything it can to otherwise deal with the issues mentioned in the presentments, said Department of Juvenile Justice District Director Preben Heidemann.
Heidemann said the facility is designed to house 50 youthful inmates, but the DJJ and the Department of Justice determined some time ago that it could exceed that capacity by 20 percent, or 10 more inmates.
"Which for this facility is relatively safe," Heidemann said.
When operating at maximum capacity the facility, which serves Clayton, Henry and Fayette counties, has basically two options when asked to house more offenders. They can transfer some current inmates to another RYDC, usually in the metro area, or they can divert the new inmates to another facility.
And they monitor that flow of inmates from "moment to moment," Heidemann said. Also, the fact that there are no current plans to add bed space to the facility, or increase the 34 member staff capacity beyond filling four current vacancies, doesn't mean that will never happen.
"That's always in a state of evaluation and re-evaluation," Heidemann said. "We're in a growing area here on the southside and numbers dictate a lot of things."
The DJJ also does make "an aggressive effort," in conjunction with the Clayton County Juvenile Court, to divert non-violent offenders to other programs, such as group homes or after-school programs.
They have expeditors whose job it is to review the RYDC's population to make sure there are no inmates who are inappropriate for detention there. Also, Detention Review Teams meet weekly to review the inmate population.
"The goal is not to lock up a youth," Heidemann said.
As for children with mental health problems, if the problems are severe the children are sent to mental health facilities or alternative programs within the state system. A behavioral health unit and volunteer psychologist screen incoming detainees for mental problems.
"If we see behavior during their stay out here, like if the child does some suicidal gesturing, we take that very seriously," Heidemann said.
Identifying which youthful offenders have mental problems is a big question, Fenlon said.
"A lot of these kids are angry and depressed and have situational problems that make them act out," Fenlon said.
Leaving them in a regular detention facility only aggravates the problems, making troubled children more depressed and angry instead of teaching them how to deal with their anger constructively and how to get along with other juveniles in group settings, Fenlon said.
But there are a limited number of programs like the Roosevelt Wilderness Program near Warm Springs where he is hoping his patient will be sent. Getting the young man into the program was actually the idea of Clayton County Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Smith.
Smith also said more funding is needed for such programs, some of which can cost parents of the offenders up to $150 a day.
"I know very few people who have $150 a day," Smith said.