Criminalization of Children with Mental Illness


A new white paper released by the Ruderman Family Foundation has revealed the daunting extent in which children with mental illnesses have their civil rights systematically violated, resulting in over half of all inmates in the U.S. having a mental illness.

The white paper argues that this widespread discrimination starts early, even from kindergarten in most cases, often cumulating in non-completion of high school, problems with the law, and results in homelessness and/or incarceration in adulthood.

Unlike people with visible or apparent disabilities, people with non-apparent disabilities often don’t receive accommodations guaranteed to them under the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their invisible nature. Instead of getting reasonable accommodations and access to services, this population gets criminalized, often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline which affects people with disabilities at a much higher rate.

The white paper reveals the following supporting statistics:

  • More than half of all inmates in the U.S. have a mental illness
  • People with disabilities, including non-apparent ones, are over-represented in every single traditionally marginalized group (women, Black people, Hispanic people, members of LGBTQ community, etc.), most of which are also incarcerated at a higher rate
  • Depending on the state, 30-80% of foster care children have a non-apparent disability, and they are much more likely to end up incarcerated
  • The long-term consequences of incarceration are devastating given the high recidivism rate (almost 50%) and the lack of supports in place to re-integrate people, especially people with non-apparent disabilities, back into the community
  • This system of discrimination also hurts the wider community and taxpayers given that it costs more than $140,000 a year to incarcerate a young person, and only about $10,000 to educate them

New Normal Editor Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer had the opportunity to speak with one of the White paper’s authors, Kristina Kopic, Advocacy Content Specialist at The Ruderman Family Foundation, about the impact of these findings.

GKM: This white paper opened my eyes to so many concerning statistics. I was shocked to learn how many people with non-apparent disabilities end up being expelled from school and ultimately incarcerated. How did we as a country get to this point?

KK: The study really shows how systemic this issue is. There was a federal legislation that passed back in 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act, that was created even before the Columbine shootings. The Intent of the legislation was to eliminate presence of guns in schools. Unfortunately, it introduced a Zero Tolerance policy for school discipline and the result of this is a discipline practice that disproportionately punishes non-criminal, non-violent behavior issues. After the Columbine shootings, many schools hired resource officers—that is, police officers, who did not necessarily know how to treat children with disabilities.

GKM: I was very shocked to see how the paper traces these issues to very young children.

KK: Yes, we show how many children, even in pre-K, are being kicked out of school because of behavior issues. Preschools aren’t mandated to be inclusive by federal law, so a child may have ADHD or another disability that impacts behavior and they may end up being kicked out of the school. Research shows that being expelled early on and not being socialized with peers is correlated with being expelled later on.

GKM: It’s clear that so many systemic changes need to be made to help support these children and their families—and clear that it will take time for those changes to be implemented. What can parents and educators do now to support their children?

KK: It’s difficult, but we do have some recommendations for what people can do now—even as we call for systemic changes in our education systems.

If you’re a teacher:

  • Be trauma-informed, so that you can help students impacted by loss, abuse and illness. Trauma can and does lead to learning disabilities and will impact children who don’t have the necessary supports to overcome adverse experiences.
  • Remember that misbehavior is not a character flaw…misbehavior is communication that means the child needs help. Teaching is an incredibly demanding job—it can be hard not to take misbehavior personally. When children receive the supports that they need, it improves the classroom environment for everyone.

If you are a school resource officer:

If you are a parent:

  • Know what RIGHTS your child has…and advocate for them. If you think your child may have a non-apparent disability and may need extra support, you can request from the school district that they be tested.
  • If your child has a diagnosis, you have the right to get the supports for your child through his/her school.

GKM: Can you share an example of school that has changed their discipline approach and experienced success?

KK: Yes! One example of breaking this cycle is a school called the Harlem Children’s Zone. This school took a holistic approach to supporting students and their families, including providing after school tutors, childcare, and other supports for families. The changes that this school made worked, with much better outcomes for students.

Creating supports that students need is not cheap in the short run, but we have to consider that incarcerating youth costs about 10 times as much as educating them. There is an incredible return on investment when we invest in our children.

About the Ruderman Family Foundation

The Ruderman Family Foundation is an internationally recognized organization, which advocates for the full inclusion of people with disabilities in our society. The Foundation supports effective programs, innovative partnerships and a dynamic approach to philanthropy in advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities throughout the United States and the world.

The Ruderman Family Foundation believes that inclusion and understanding of all people is essential to a fair and flourishing community and imposes these values within its leadership and funding.

For more information, please visit