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Kids in Crisis: Lack of placement options in juvenile system is hurting families

McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital
Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Record-Eagle/Mike Krebs
Connor, a 17-year-old boy from Cheboygan, was in the emergency department at Petoskey's McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital for six weeks this summer, while awaiting an inpatient youth psychiatric bed. Eventually, his mom took him home. Officials still haven't found a placement for him. (Photo: Mike Krebs/Record-Eagle)

This is the first of a three-part series on Michigan's juvenile justice system, co-reported by IPR News and the Traverse City Record-Eagle. Due to the sensitive nature of protecting juvenile offenders and their families, first names only are used for certain sources.

Connor spent the beginning of his summer in an emergency room.

But he wasn’t physically ill or injured, he was just waiting for help.

kids in crisis map.png
Source: MDHHS data / Graphic: Traverse City Record-Eagle

Connor, 17, needed help managing his intellectual development disorder. He had a run-in with police in Cheboygan in May after threatening to harm himself, and a court ordered him to check into a long-term care facility that would help him manage his mental health diagnoses.

His mother, Carrie, hoped sending her son to a long-term care facility would help him get back on track before he turned 18, when he would no longer be considered a juvenile and would be subject to the adult system.

“Basically there was a list of things for Connor and to support me that the court said, ‘you need to do this,’” Carrie told the Record-Eagle and IPR News.

He was lodged at McLaren Northern Michigan hospital in Petoskey until a youth mental health bed at one of Michigan's 14 facilities opened up.

Carrie, a single mother who works full time and has other children, drove the 45 minutes from her home in Cheboygan nearly every day.

Days passed.

No facility had the space.

Weeks went by.

No one would take the boy for his delinquent history or mental health diagnoses.

“It was traumatizing to Connor and my whole family,” Carrie said. “And it was detrimental to his mental health.”

Carrie said the hospital staff treated her son well and his behavior steadily improved. But she knew he needed the extra attention from a residential care facility.

The room he was in was small with no windows. Carrie said Connor rarely got to go outside.

Those types of rooms are standard in ER spaces so the patient can’t harm themselves or others. But Tressa Gardner, executive director of emergency services for McLaren Health Care system said they aren’t meant to be used for a long time.

“When you don't have that next step for them to go to a psychiatric facility, and they're not safe to go home, this is where they're housed,” she said. “It's not the hospital's fault. It's not the parent’s fault. It's not the (emergency department) staff’s fault. It's the fact that we do not have enough beds in the state to accommodate these children.”

That was all just after Mother’s Day weekend - between May 9 and June 17. It’s October now and Carrie’s son still hasn’t been admitted to a facility with open youth mental health beds.

Connor’s not alone.

Read the full version of this story in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

This story was co-reported by Elizabeth Brewer and Michael Livingston, in partnership with the Traverse City Record-Eagle and Report for America.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.