This isn’t the first specialty court that Judge Cynthia Wheless has worked to launch.
The presiding judge over the 417th District Court started the county’s Juvenile Drug Court about 10 years ago and initiated the county’s Juvenile Girls Court in 2017. Both follow a drug court model, which means they involve a multidisciplinary team approach, Wheless said.
Now, she will be the judge overseeing the county’s newest specialty treatment court aimed at helping juvenile offenders who have a mental illness.
“We've seen an overwhelming number, an increasing number, of mental health sufferers coming into the juvenile system for lack of a better place for them, to be completely honest,” Wheless said.
With the county’s newly approved Juvenile Mental Health Intervention Program, there’s hope that those children will get the help they need. On Sept. 28, the Collin County Commissioners Court approved the program.
“Some of our worst cases in Juvenile have been committed by children with either intellectual disability, developmental disability or mental illness,” Wheless said.
The treatment court program will keep the court from having to send a relatively violent child back into the community without treatment, she said.
“This is the perfect solution of how to keep the community safe by getting these little guys into treatment and making sure that any threat is muted or even completely eliminated by proper treatment,” she said.
For Wheless, the ability to provide elements of both discipline and treatment through the program puts the court in a prime spot for helping juveniles with mental health needs.
“We've had a lot of kids that we felt, really for the reason of their mental health status, whether it's a developmental disorder or a mental illness, their mental health would not allow them to comply with the law,” she said.
While those juveniles would be found by law to be not liable for the act, Wheless said there was an awareness that the court wasn’t successful in helping them engage in treatment.
“So we would provide our treatment in juvenile, but we couldn't exactly connect them with the community resource of LifePath,” she said.
The specialty court is designed to weave in both community services and the county’s juvenile services, she said.
H. Lynn Hadnot, director of Collin County Juvenile Probation Services, said the department had seen a “drastic increase” in school-related referrals for children who had been identified as needing mental health services and who have been placed in specialized education.
“But still, even with those services being provided in the educational system, these kids are acting out, and oftentimes violently in the academic setting, and those kids oftentimes are referred for delinquent conduct to our agency,” he said.
As a result, they saw a need to develop a program structure that focused on treatment, Hadnot said.
That means “fostering accountability,” he said, but also involving the children and their families in intensive community-based services for mental illnesses and providing intensive case management support.
As participants work through the phases of treatment in the program, Hadnot said participants will eventually be successfully discharged. However, LifePath will continue to be a community-based provider, he said.
“Because the reality is these kids and families will need LifePath to provide these services long term in almost every case,” he said.