Serving Juvenile Offenders with Mental Health Issues

Patricia Cantu-Barrios at work in the Cameron County Juvenile Probation Office.
Patricia Cantu-Barrios at work in the Cameron County Juvenile Probation Office.

Patricia Cantu-Barrios is only one of about 36 juvenile probation officers in the state to specialize in mental health cases.

As a certified probation officer with Cameron County Juvenile Probation in Brownsville, Cantu-Barrios has a specialized caseload of 15 juveniles from ages 10 to 17 with mental health issues. In addition to providing traditional probation services, she also works with Tropical Texas Behavioral Health on medication management and on assessing and stabilizing the youth as well as protecting the public.

"Some of them are suicidal, serial offenders and self injurers (cutters)," said Cantu-Barrios, who graduated from SHSU in August from the online Masters of Science in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management Program. "In the long run, our job is to stabilize them, minimize their hurting factors and protect the public. We are at their disposal 24/7 when they or their families need us."

While probation is charged with working on their skills and supervision in the community, the mental health agency’s role is to keep their young patients stable. Some of the juveniles are also autistic or mentally challenged.

Juveniles are referred to the program by probation officers and ordered to participate by the judges through a court order with offenses ranging from misdemeanor cases to felony assaults. Many assaults involve family members, so Cantu-Barrios often works with the juvenile parents on effective ways of discipline.

By having specialized clientele, probation officers learn quickly how to deal with mental health issues and how to de-escalate crisis situations. For example, many juveniles with mental health issues can’t handle the hard and strict rules of an intensive supervision program, instead they need more visual cues, calendars or assistance.

"You have to individualize things for them to better communicate with them," Cantu-Barrios said. “You need to look at them in the eye and show them how to and guide what you want out of them. You can tell them one or two directives at a time and add more as they meet those goals…It‘s a lot more relationship building and constant positive enforcement."

Cantu-Barrios discovered that one of her clients couldn’t read. She set up a simple program using pictures, vowels and consonants so he could figure out simple words in the classroom.

Cantu-Barrios, a former early childhood teacher, said it also is valuable to understand the stages of child development when dealing with all youth and youth with mental illness.

"It helps to understand and assess these kids,” Cantu-Barrios said. As part of the agency’s outreach efforts, Cantu-Barrios recalled meeting a seven year old boy in a summer program in the community. He suddenly left the program after his father was released from jail, and shortly thereafter, his father died. The mother sent him back to the program to get stability in his life, but he received no additional counseling to deal with his grief. Cantu-Barrios found him help through a local community program.

"If nobody is there to catch them or offer help, they are more likely to become the juveniles we deal with today," said Cantu-Barrios. "If you know about child development and where the child was lost, you may be able to help with rehabilitation and provide a sense of survival."

Before joining the mental health unit a year ago, Cantu Barrios was an intensive supervision officer, a field and school officer and an intake officer in Cameron County. Prior to coming to Cameron County, she was one of five people to work juvenile probation in Willacy County Texas, where her duties included everything from cleaning the office, to supervising juveniles to handling court duties.

Cantu-Barrios likes the diversity of her work and the fact that she learns something new every day.

"Not every possession of marijuana is the same and not every parent of every kid is the same," said Cantu-Barrios.

While working with youth in her community, Cantu-Barrios also pursued a Master’s degree online with Sam Houston State University. She said that SHSU provided her the information she needed for her career and the confidence to use it.

"I’m on a cloud," said Cantu-Barrios. "I feel very secure with myself. Now I am not afraid anymore. The CJ staff at Sam Houston was also there, always motivating me. Sam makes me feel proud that I was able to get this education."

Cantu-Barrios hopes to use the community probation concepts she learned in the Master’s Program and apply it to clientele. She also hopes to coordinate with other criminal justice agencies in her area.

“I learned networking is extremely important," said Barrios. “You have to work as a unit together. You have to know what other people are doing to make it better. There is a great diversity in jobs in criminal justice and from a juvenile probation officer to police, everything comes together to meet in the middle."

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