On December 5, a 19-year-old named Robert Hawkins entered the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, fatally shot eight employees and shoppers, injured five others and then turned his assault rifle on himself. Hawkins, a high school dropout, had a history of depression, family troubles, drug use and criminal activity; he had spent a significant amount of time in the state’s foster care, juvenile justice and behavioral health systems.
According to the Omaha World-Herald, “Hawkins had been made a state ward in 2002 because his father’s insurance through the Air Force would no longer pay for his stay at a residential treatment center. The teenager, then 14, was sent there after threatening to kill his stepmother. Hawkins had already been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment twice before. During his time as a state ward, he received more than three years of therapy while living in residential treatment centers, a group home and a foster home. He moved back with his father in December 2005.”
In important ways, Hawkins’s life and violent death highlight the broader failures of Nebraska’s juvenile justice and mental health systems. It is increasingly (and, in Hawkins’s case, spectacularly) apparent that the state is locking up too many young people who don’t pose a threat to public safety and insufficiently treating those who do. By extension, Nebraska’s struggles mirror those of many states–amounting, in the final analysis, to a national failure to treat and rehabilitate troubled youth.
Since 1974, the year a landmark study on the state’s juvenile justice system was published, the population of children under 17 in Nevada has decreased by 30,000, yet the number of juveniles arrested each year has remained constant and the number of youth in treatment centers has spiked. In 2004 more than 10,000 children were housed in state institutions, a higher per capita rate than any other state in the country. Most wards of the state are status, or nonviolent, offenders, yet they are punished as criminals rather than receiving the necessary treatment for their addictions and behavioral disorders. The state’s juvenile justice system houses a disproportionately high number of minority youth (in 2006 nearly 40 percent of all juvenile arrests in Nebraska were minorities, even though they account for about 10 percent of the youth population), and from 2003 to 2006 the number of juveniles serving in adult prisons increased by nearly 20 percent.
This information is lifted from “Spare Some Change: An Account of the Nebraska Juvenile Justice and Children’s Behavioral Health Systems,” a report released yesterday by the advocacy group Voices for Children in Nebraska. According to executive director Kathy Bigsby Moore’s introductory remarks, the report “presents a synthesis of the many Nebraska studies, reports and plans that have been put forth for more than thirty years, and provides exemplary models and practices that can be implemented if Nebraska policy makers will simply ‘Spare Some Change’ within the state legislative and budget setting process.”
At forty-eight pages, the report is impressively thorough. It includes, among other things, a discussion on the history and intricacies of juvenile justice and behavioral health services, particularly in Nebraska but also at the national level; a brief analysis of current scientific research on adolescent brain development; and an overview of some of the nation’s most successful strategies for handling youthful offenders, such as the famous “Missouri model,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change program. Any of these programs, the report suggests, would bring significant improvement to the status quo in Nebraska. (The report also includes a two-page bullet-point summary of recommendations for policy-makers.)
“Nebraska has gone a distance in juvenile justice and behavioral health reform, but not far enough to meet the needs of children based upon their best interests,” the report concludes. “We can and should do more. The needed change will require public and private support, political will, financial resources and time…. As this report outlines, numerous legislative and administrative discussions, bills and studies occurred throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s concerning the future of juvenile justice and behavioral health reform. However, as we move toward placing children and youth in adult criminal court and away from community-based care, social and biological evidence suggests moving in the other direction.”
A report of this scope was, of course, well under way before Hawkins unleashed his deadly rampage in Omaha. But the timing of its release, as Moore acknowledged at a press conference yesterday, may bring heightened attention to its findings. “I think the recent set of events reinforces everything that this report is saying,” she said.
On that point, consider Hawkins’s interaction with the Nevada juvenile justice system in August 2006. That month Hawkins, who had recently turned 18, failed another in a series of drug tests and was sent back to jail on a disorderly conduct charge. On August 21 he met with his caseworker, who, according to the Omaha World-Herald, “recommended getting outpatient counseling and ending the court’s jurisdiction rather than the residential treatment discussed at the previous hearing.”
“I think that the department has offered many services to this young man, and he has received a lot of help along the way,” the caseworker said. “I’m not quite sure that we’re benefiting him anymore with requiring certain services for him. I think he needs to find some fulfillment from within.”