Plans moving forward for new mental health facility for DJJ youth

Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 8:20 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Plans are moving forward for a new facility for youths in South Carolina’s juvenile justice system with the most severe mental health needs.

The state legislature set aside about $20 million in the current state budget for the project, for which the need is pressing, the Department of Juvenile Justice’s leader said.

Eden Hendrick, who was confirmed in May as the DJJ’s executive director, said the closure of state-run psychiatric residential treatment facilities, or PRTFs, for boys and girls several years ago led to a severe lack of bed space.

That has since translated to youths in the DJJ system with serious mental health needs being moved in some cases to out-of-state facilities, away from their families, if private facilities in South Carolina don’t have space or refuse to take them.

In addition, state law requires these youths to be under the jurisdiction of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, as it is the agency best fit to serve their needs, not DJJ.

“These children have been basically just languishing in DJJ without receiving the appropriate mental health treatment that is necessary, and that’s why it’s so important to begin this process of having another modernized, state-run PRTF, especially for justice-involved youth,” Hendrick said.

The new, 50,000-square-foot residential facility in Columbia will be able to house up to 40 youths and 150 staff, according to preliminary plans submitted to a legislative panel. It includes 32 bedrooms with attached bathrooms, communal living space, classrooms, food prep and dining, treatment rooms, inside and outside activity areas, laundry, staff office space, lobby, security, and storage.

The facility will be run by the Department of Mental Health, but DJJ and the Department of Children’s Advocacy will also be partnering on it.

Federal law does not permit DJJ to accept Medicaid funds, but the DMH can, so this setup also allows the state to pay for this care for its youths, most of whom are Medicaid-eligible.

“There hopefully will be no waitlists, that they will be — this is designed to meet their needs, their unique needs, so there will not be this whole long process of having to apply and be rejected and apply and be rejected,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick and others want to see this project complete as soon as possible, as they largely remain in the same holding pattern concerning bed shortages until then, though she said they have recently made changes to encourage in-state facilities to take in DJJ youths.

However, they cannot set a project timeline just yet because supply chain issues and workforce shortages in the construction industry could change it.

Hendrick said it’s also possible she may have to return and ask the General Assembly for more money later if costs rise over time.

“If we need future allocations, it’ll be there,” Sen. Katrina Shealy, R – Lexington, said. “This is important. South Carolina’s children are important.”

Shealy, who has been a major advocate for DJJ youth and department reform in the legislature, said this facility will give more DJJ youths the help they need.

“Without putting them behind bars, so to speak,” she said. “They’ll still be in custody, but it’ll be giving them psychiatric treatment, it’ll give them the help they need so they can be rehabilitated.”

While Hendrick wants to ensure this facility is long-standing and effective, she also fears DJJ could outgrow it as the state’s mental health crisis among children across the board worsens.

“I just really think this is a good opportunity for our youth, and I really hope we are not back here in 10 years, talking about the same thing,” she said.