New Sumner County Juvenile Mental Health Court Aims To Destigmatize Mental Illness, Keep Kids Out of the System

Sumner County Youth Empowerment (SCYE) is Tennessee’s first juvenile mental health court. The intensive probation and treatment program, which kicked off in May and welcomed its first case last month, is designed to help vulnerable youth avoid the adult court system.

“We figured a court is the best place to start. The purpose is to help kids and families who come through the system and try to figure out if their behaviors are because of mental illness,” said Alan Hickey, Assistant Juvenile Court Director.

Judge David R. Howard said the idea came from a conversation he had with Judge Mike Carter, who started Sumner County’s adult mental health court.

“A lot of issues are untreated because we don’t know what to do. We are still struggling with what do you do with a child with mental health issues. Is the behavior driving the mental health issues or are the mental health issues driving the behavior,” said Judge Howard, who is a General Sessions Court and Juvenile Court Judge.

Judge Carter was a tremendous help in the early development stages of SCYE, which was modeled after a juvenile drug court program in Denton, Texas.

“We want to try to take the stigma away from mental health issues, especially for kids. They deserve better than that,” said Judge Howard.

SCYE focuses on supervision ahead of probation, giving families struggling with what to do the tools they need to be successful.

“It’s more of an informal process. We avoid violations of probation. We’re doing our best to encourage and lift these people out of their circumstances,” said Assistant Director Hickey.

Once a referral is received, interviews are completed and the case is presented to the SCYE board, which includes the District Attorney, mental health professionals, a Board of Education representative and the SCYE probation officer.

“It’s important for Sumner County to lead this initiative. We have a really good board of folks who are willing to work hard to do what’s best for the kids of Tennessee,” said Judge Howard.

The rotating, multidisciplinary group votes to determine who enters the program.

“I’m proud for all of the members of our court and the community who stepped up to assist. They invested a lot of time and effort to see what would work best for us,” said Assistant Director Hickey. 

SCYE requires a nine to 12-month commitment from participants and their families. The probation officer has weekly contact with the child and family — home and office visits, school visits and counseling are mandatory components. Although voluntary, participants are expected to honor their commitments.

“Every other week, we bring them into court. I meet with them in person. I sit down with the child and their family, and talk about what’s going on. What are the positives? What are the challenges? If they doing well, there’s a series of rewards. If not, there’s a series of sanctions,” said Judge Howard.

To better manage the program, SCYE will only accept 10 cases at a time. The program is currently in the beginning of phase one with two other cases up for review. Future goals include adding a group component, where participants can share their experiences with each other.

“We are hoping this offers better treatment planning as kids reach adulthood. We want to catch it with second chances, education and rehabilitation in childhood, so they can avoid the adult system,” said Assistant Director Hickey.