Powell Fellow to Aid Mississippi's Disadvantaged Children
The more third-year law student Tiffany Marshall investigated how Mississippi deals with incarcerated children who need mental health treatment, the more she knew she wanted to help. Mississippi’s two state-run juvenile correction centers—called training schools for their paramilitary style of rehabilitating prisoners—have been cited by the Department of Justice for inflicting the worst abuse the agency has investigated in 20 years. According to a 2004 department report, three young women who were suicidal were isolated with no food for several days, with a hole in the ground for a restroom. Another young man repeatedly requested treatment for depression but was rebuffed until the Justice Department stepped in.
“Mississippi just hasn’t developed an effective way of dealing with kids who are exhibiting criminal behavior at an early age,” Marshall said. An estimated 85 percent of youth in the training schools and juvenile detention live with some form of mental illness. “We’re talking about kids who have oftentimes limited capacities as it is, who are committing these crimes and are really crying out for help in a lot of ways—and they’re not getting it.”
Their needs will soon receive more attention with Marshall’s help. As the recipient of this year’s Powell Fellowship, Marshall has earned the school’s highest honor for a graduate pursuing a public service career. The award provides a $35,000 salary for one year, with the expectation of renewal the second year, allowing her to work at no cost to a partner public-interest organization.
“I was certainly surprised and very humbled to have received it,” Marshall said. “To be one of those students who the Law School felt would take this fellowship and use it well, and represent the Law School well, is an incredible honor.”
Marshall, a Winchester, Va., native, decided when looking for her first job as a public-interest attorney to focus on the Deep South.
“I had decided to target states where I felt there was a great deal of need, legal and otherwise, and states where I felt like there was a great deal of need for competent, effective legal advocates,” she said.
She quickly zoned in on Mississippi, a state with few legal services organizations, but with one prominent Jackson-based newcomer with which she could partner: the Mississippi Center for Justice, which opened in 2002.
Marshall praised the center’s advocacy efforts on behalf of disadvantaged and low-income people and communities, including Medicare class-action litigation and instigating improvements to the state’s prison system. “Just to be a part of that organization I thought would be really exciting.”
The center recently collaborated with the Southern Poverty Law Center to pass the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005, which requires children to be screened for mental health disorders, and if diagnosed, to be treated within 48 hours.
“One of the things I’d like to do is make that less than 48 hours and also expand the screening and other testing options that currently exist to determine whether or not kids have mental health illnesses,” Marshall said. “The law says ‘certain’ mental health screening, and that concerns me—that we may only be focusing on a small category of types of mental health problems.” She plans to research the issue to see if screening can be expanded.
But “having that piece of legislation at my disposal will make advocating for these kids a little bit easier,” she said.
In addition to advocating for individual clients, Marshall plans to effect systemic change in the provision of mental health services for incarcerated children.
Marshall, a Hollins University graduate in political science and Spanish, has been working on behalf of children since college, when she began tutoring girls in detention centers in Roanoke, Va. She also instructed children in an after-school program for at-risk youth in the area. After college she became an academic counselor for Virginia Tech’s Upward Bound, a program to ensure that disadvantaged kids who show academic promise pursue postsecondary education. Marshall helped students select the right courses to prepare for college, prepared them for the SAT and ACT, and secured them financial aid.
“That was just a very rewarding experience for me,” she said. “My program strived to give at-risk high school students hope by helping them build a future for themselves.”
During her first-year summer in law school she worked for the JustChildren program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, where she helped children who needed mental health treatment. The next summer she interned with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society and spent 10 weeks with the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, where she helped an attorney put together a memo assessing the needs of 16- to 21-year-olds in the North Shore region of Massachusetts, concentrating on mental health needs.
“I also focused on the statistics around incarcerated kids in that age group who suffer from mental health illness. That work really solidified my interest in developing a project that allowed me to work for incarcerated children, because that’s when I came to really get a feel for the statistics, the number of kids who are incarcerated who suffer from mental illness and the lack of services to support them in recovering, or at least dealing with, their mental health issues,” she said. “I was able to put the practical work from JustChildren into context. I thought, this is a real problem, and it’s not being addressed adequately.”
Her work has prepared her well for the next step—helping to change a broken system in Mississippi.
“The tactics that the training schools have employed to deal with kids with mental health problems have been horrendous,” she said, noting that prison officials are not trained to deal with such cases. “The children need help, they need treatment. They need services, counseling. The services aren’t there and unfortunately the support and trained staff isn’t there.”
Mississippi’s two training centers, Oakley and Columbia, house a predominantly African-American population of several hundred children. Many come from the foster care system and migrate directly to the juvenile justice system.
“Not only are they neglected in foster families and by the state’s lack of control of the foster care system—they then go into the juvenile justice system and they continue to be abused,” she said. “It’s almost as though these kids are not able to catch a break.”
Marshall plans to increase awareness of mental illness in incarcerated children among legislators and advocates, but also in communities, where she hopes to build a coalition of support for treatment.
“I think a lot of what I’ll be doing is actually in the community, and trying to make the issue relevant for parents who don’t have incarcerated kids, to let them see that at some point, these kids are going to transition back into your communities,” she said. “To the extent that we can ensure they are receiving appropriate treatment while they are detained, it benefits everyone.
“In society in general there’s a stigma attached to mental health problems and I think it’s very prevalent in minority communities,” Marshall said. “One of the challenges I’ll face is helping them to see that the treatment and services that are out there to overcome these illnesses will make their lives better and make them more productive people, and hopefully will help them build more successful futures.”