community projects central to juvenile mental health program’s efforts
In other cases, the update isn’t as encouraging.
McCary told «J» that she is waiting on him to take the next step to accept responsibility for his actions. Writing an apology letter to his grandmother for hitting her was a start, she said, but he has a ways to go.
Despite the different pace these children are on, McCary said they’re all in line to turn their lives around if they take advantage of the opportunity that’s been given to them.
McCary presides over a program called SOAR, a Juvenile Mental Health Court program that’s in its first year. Laura Prillwitz, deputy director of the Denton County Juvenile Probation Department, came up with the idea.
SOAR, which McCary said means whatever a participant wants it to, is a program for children ages 10 17 who have been charged with a crime and who have a mental illness.
While the child must pay the consequence for the crime through the justice system, SOAR helps prepare them for adult life through treatment, accountability and compassion all while keeping them with their family, which is a key component to SOAR.
«If we place them (in residential treatment facilities) there aren’t many of those in Texas, so they end up having to go out of state,» McCary said. «Their families would have a hard time participating because they’re not there. The risk of them re offending would be lower if we keep them with their family and in the community.»
Prillwitz said Denton County is the only county of its size that has a program like this.
«If the family isn’t included, then when the child does return home, not a lot has changed,» Prillwitz said.
McCary said a secondary reason for keeping the children with their families is financial she said it costs $150 a day to place them in the facilities.
SOAR has the approval of the district attorney’s office and has been sanctioned by the Denton County Commissioners and approved by the governor’s office.
For a child to be accepted into SOAR, the adjudicated child must have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness, including mood disorder, anxiety, trauma and ADHD.
An intensive screening process takes place, which includes paperwork, interviews and mental health evaluations. If approved by the judge, the child begins the program, receives a mental health treatment plan and begins the program’s four phases. Each phase includes frequency of court hearings, where the child and their family update the SOAR team on problems they had, what triggered them and what successes they had.
Phases also include therapeutic services, case management services, probation contacts, cognitive behavior group interventions and mandatory meetings.
It’s a joint effort by many entities ranging from Denton County courts, the district attorney’s office, the probation department, area counseling centers and the community.
McCary said an important piece to SOAR is the activities the children can participate in to show them a side of themselves they may not have known existed.
For example, experts have come in to talk to her students about cooking, safe food preparation and etiquette, and the children will take what they learned and help prepare a meal at an event June 1.
«It’s an introduction into other interests,» McCary said. «It taps into something they love that maybe they didn’t know they loved. The cloud of mental illness can be stifling.»
McCary said having someone teach these children about new things also shows there are people on their side.
«These aren’t the star athletes or the homecoming kings and queens,» McCary said. «The attention they get is a lot of times negative. They’re not getting the accolades. The community cares, but sometimes they don’t know how to show it.»
Prillwitz said these are more than just activities they’re teaching tools.
«We’re teaching life skills how to work together, communication skills, job skills and dealing with emotions,» Prillwitz said. «It looks like one thing, but they’re doing multiple things.»
Another activity was an event for mental health awareness in Denton, where the children served as volunteers. During last week’s court appearance, many of the children told McCary they felt good being the ones to help other children at the event.
The parents of «Ja.» said the event was a big step in their son’s journey.
«We’ve built a bond through SOAR and the community service,» his father said. «We’re getting to know each other.»
McCary makes sure her courtroom gives the children a place to shine, too. During court appearances, she lets them talk about their recent accomplishments. She gave «M» a few seconds to sing a song she recently learned.
That’s one of several incentives for children who make progress. Others include reduced community service, less frequent court appearances and fewer meetings with the supervision officer.
But when a child slips, the requirements are increased more assignments, additional court appearances, detention and a return to a previous phase.
Those who complete the program can participate in a graduation ceremony and have a chance to get back on track.