Bill would screen school kids for behavioral health problems

A bill requiring all public school and homeschooled children in Connecticut to have behavioral health assessments in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 is drawing criticism from parents and homeschool advocates who say it would stigmatize children and intrude on parents’ rights.

The bill was crafted in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting with the hope of identifying mental health problems in youths in a timely way.

The bill is intended to make sure that pediatricians are screening for behavioral health problems routinely during annual physical exams, said Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, who proposed the bill with Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven.

Under the bill, the assessments would be done by the child’s pediatrician, who would submit a form to the state verifying that the child had received the assessment. The results would be confidential and disclosed only to a child’s parent or guardian.

“I just want to make sure that the screenings happen,” Harp said. “A lot of times pediatricians don’t get around to it. This is to make sure they do it in conjunction with the physical exam.”

As written, the bills calls for screening all public and homeschooled children, but Harp said Tuesday she would drop the requirement for homeschooled children. She said she also would consider adding private school children to the legislation.

During a legislative hearing last week, several parents and legal experts said they appreciate the bill’s intent, but said the law would be intrusive and rob parents of their rights.

“We want it to be recognized that we are the foremost advocates of our children’s well-being and we do not want that primary role to be assumed by the state,” said Nicole Stacy of the Family Institute of the Connecticut.

Deborah G. Stevenson, founder of National Home Education Legal Defense, said the state has no Constitutional authority to impose state mandated mental health assessments. She said this is a protected right of parents and has been upheld by a long line of cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and the Connecticut Supreme Court.

“The bill is a huge over-reach into the authority of parents for no apparent reason,” she said.

Harp defended the bill, saying diagnosing these illnesses requires clinical expertise.

“Is it over-reaching for a doctor to say that it’s a regular sore throat or strep throat?” Harp said. “This is a clinical decision that a doctor is making. “

Bill opponents said the bill is unnecessary because it duplicates federal laws that require boards of education to identify, assess and serve children with serious emotional disturbances.

One critic pointed out that the bill would not have made a difference in the Newtown case because the shooter, Adam Lanza, 20, was already diagnosed.

“If this bill were implemented sooner, the result in Newtown would have been the same,” said Charlotte E. Hurst. “This was not the case of a missed diagnosis, which seems to be at the heart of this proposal. This is the wrong solution.”

Hurst said the bill would flood the mental health system by requiring about 182,000 schoolchildren to be assessed annually at the cost of $18.2 million a year.

“I know you legislators are under pressure to do something, but please be wise in your efforts,” she said.

Others expressed concern that the screenings could label and stigmatize children.

“Without a plan for treatment and recovery, or access to appropriate and timely treatments and services, such screenings would not only do little good, but might actually cause harm by labeling children and youth,” said Daniela Giordano, public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness – Connecticut.

Rather than having a blanket screening for all children, it might make sense to target only those showing symptoms, said Amy Fogelstrom-Chai.

Public Health Committee member Rep. Prasad Srinivasan, R-Glastonbury, said that education might be a better approach than a blanket screening.

“We need to have more education out there for people who come into regular contact with children, such as teachers and the clergy, so they can spot a red flag,” he said.

Many said the real problem isn’t screening, but access to and coordination of mental health services.

“What parents really need is better access to services and the consolidation of agencies so that parents with troubled children are not sent from one agency to another,” Stacy said.

Giordano said only about one-fourth of the children and youth identified as needing behavioral health treatment actually receive it due to a combination of limited access to services, inadequate insurance coverage and a shortage of child psychiatrists.