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    Judge's order to DCF overturned

    Circuit Judge Frank Quesada tried to move children out of detention and into treatment programs. That went too far, an appeals court says Friday.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 10, 2002

    A Pinellas judge overstepped his authority when he ordered the state's social service agency to find a way to put children in court-ordered mental health treatment programs, an appeals court ruled Friday.

    While the judges on the 2nd District Court of Appeal sympathized with the effort to move the four mentally incompetent children out of juvenile detention and into court-ordered counseling, they said it was not the role of the judiciary to force that.

    Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who started the court action, said the ruling makes the assumption that state Department of Children and Families officials acted in good faith when they said they simply didn't have the money to pay for the treatment. That, he said, is untrue and he vowed to appeal the DCA decision.

    "We will keep advocating for them and keep trying to show there are resources," Dillinger said.

    Dillinger maintains DCF is diverting money from the mental health program. Furthermore, the department could dip into its reserve funds to pay for treatment.

    Shawnna Donovan, a spokeswoman for DCF, said department officials are appropriately spending the money state legislators gave them for treatment of mentally incompetent children.

    "We are doing everything we possibly can to treat the mental health incompetency cases we have," she said.

    The issue came before Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada in May, when the public defender told Quesada that four Pinellas children had been in juvenile detention for weeks after having been ordered to undergo mental health treatment.

    The children, one girl and three boys, faced felony charges. But as their cases proceeded, they were found to be mentally incompetent. In response, local judges ordered they be placed in mental health treatment programs, not juvenile detention, so they could be returned to competency and move forward with their cases.

    Dillinger contended they should have been moved from juvenile detention within days. DCF lawyers argued the children were victims of a state budget too paltry to take care of them.

    Those four children, Dillinger said Friday, have been placed in treatment programs since then. But nine more Pinellas children are on the waiting list, he said.

    "When they're locked up without treatment, they become more violent and they keep racking up offenses," Dillinger said.

    As their rap sheets grow longer, they will be more likely to end up in an adult treatment facility designed to house seriously mentally ill people, Dillinger said.

    "We want to make sure these children get help so they can lead normal lives," he said.

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