Two children, aged 14 and 12, walk away from a youth group home, head down the street and almost immediately, there is trouble.

This is the incident that is changing everything.

The 14-year-old female is Nicole Jackson. She is well-known to law enforcement in Flagler and Volusia counties for petty crimes, theft, stealing pets and starting fires.

She was Baker Acted, or “forced” to get a mental health exam, 14 times.

Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood has a solution, and it starts with a building, which used to be home to the local United Way.

“So every kid that’s arrested in Volusia County, whether they steal a candy bar, or they do a gunpoint robbery, goes there. First, they get assessed head to toe mental health issues,” Chitwood said. “They get assessed for substance abuse issues. Their family gets assessed. And then there’s a program devised to start help immediately, not a year after the incident, not six months after the incident, within days after the incident.”

The sheriff says this incident brought to light a disconnect in a system that’s set up to identify and treat young people for mental health, substance abuse and other related problems.

He says no one agency would or could get through to extreme cases like Jackson, and it wasn’t due to a lack of trying.

“Nothing was designed to intervene with her. She kept bouncing all over the system. And then we have the shootout, and now you’re at a point where, you know, you’re 14 years old, and you’re looking at spending the next 30 years, 20 to 30 years in jail or on some type of probation because the law is clear,” Chitwood said.

To avoid a repeat of the incident, the county provided the sheriff with all the funding he needs to get his one-stop assessment intake center up and running, and mental health providers and others have pledged to be on board.

“I know we’re not going to stop everything. But if there’s a certain percentage of these young folks that we could divert out of the criminal justice system, because they’re not their mental health, and there are other issues that aren’t being addressed. So then it’s well worth the investment,” Chitwood said.

The Juvenile Assessment Center will house people from SMA Healthcare, Halifax Behavioral Services, the Children’s Home Society of Florida and Volusia County Schools.

The Department of Juvenile Justice will also have a presence.

It’s hoped that the Assessment Center can be opened in October.

By: Jim Payne

Originally posted by Wesh 2 News