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Thousands of mentally ill US children held in detention centers

July 8, 2004/ Reuters

Thousands of mentally ill American children, some as young as seven, are locked up in juvenile detention centres because there is nowhere else for them to go, a US congressional report has found.

The report painted a disturbing picture of children with mental illness and/or substance abuse warehoused in jail-like conditions where their mental health often deteriorates.

More than 160 of the 524 centres surveyed reported suicide attempts by youths held unnecessarily.

"The last place some of these kids need to be is in detention," the study quoted a Tennessee juvenile centre administrator as saying.

"Those with depression are locked up alone to contemplate suicide."

The House-Senate bipartisan report was initiated by Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins and California Democrat Republican Henry Waxman.

It was the subject of a hearing on Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, which Senator Collins chairs.

Many families struggle to afford mental health care.

Health insurers often provide little or no mental health coverage, or pay so little doctors do not want to take part in the health plans.

Community clinics are stretched and cannot meet demand.

The study found that 33 states hold youths who have no charges against them of any kind in juvenile detention centres.

On any given day, about 2,000 such young people are incarcerated, and over six months, the number is 15,000.

"Too often (children) are simply left to languish in juvenile detention centres which are ill-equipped to meet their needs while they wait for scarce mental health services," Senator Collins added.

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