Senate adopts measure to coordinate care for mentally ill children

The state Senate unanimously adopted a measure Thursday aimed at improving coordination between a wide array of caregivers and support services for children with mental health needs.

The bill, crafted in response to last December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, lays the groundwork for a more comprehensive, coordinated response by mental health agencies, schools and emergency mobile psychiatric services.

It also calls for a coordinated system of home visitation programs that serve vulnerable families of young children. Experts consider such programs key resources for preventing problems and intervening early.

But the measure, which now heads to the House of Representatives, doesn’t allocate any new funding for these services, causing some to question how effective it might be.

“I think the political climate in the wake of the Newtown tragedy made this bipartisan, unanimous Senate vote possible tonight,” said Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, who spearheaded the measure. “But I’ve long felt that Connecticut should treat mental with the same importance as general health. This bill moves that conversation forward, and it strengthens the continuum of care that we do have here in Connecticut, especially for our youngest children.” 

Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said many psychologists and other specialists dealing with mental illnesses only treat patients that are teen-aged or older.

But “sometimes problems begin to manifest themselves as early as kindergarten and become progressively more troublesome” over the years, Looney said, adding that some children suffering from serious mental illness might wait seven or eight years before getting proper treatment. “That is a real gap in our system and a tragedy for many families.”

The proposal calls for a number of changes intended to improve coordination in the mental health system.

Schools, mental health agencies and emergency mobile psychiatric services would be required to have agreements to work together. There would also be a coordinated system of home visitation programs that serve vulnerable families of young children, with a single referral process for families seeking services.

Though the measure passed unanimously some Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Senate pressed for assurances that this visitation program wouldn’t be imposed on any families.

“There is no intention for intrusion,” Bartolomeo said, adding the program is designed to provide parents who are worried or uncertain about their children with professional expertise. “This is for voluntary requests.”

The bill calls for increased training in mental health and child development for pediatricians and child care providers, and training for mental health providers in understanding and treating trauma.

Research indicates that trauma is a major contributor to mental illness, and that prompt treatment can prevent long-term negative effects. But often, children experiencing the effects of trauma are misdiagnosed and receive ineffective treatment.

There would be a public information campaign about children’s mental health — if private funds are available to fund it. And there would be a task force on the effects of nutrition, genetics, toxins, psychotropic drugs and complementary and alternative treatments on the mental health of children.

In addition, programs that get public funding for mental health of children would have to report annually on measures related to treatment availability.

School resource officers would be required to get training in best practices to ensure that children with mental health needs aren’t victimized or disproportionately referred to the juvenile justice system. And the state’s Judicial Branch could study whether young people who need mental health treatment are entering the juvenile justice or correction systems. Both of those provisions are contingent on getting outside funds.

The legislation doesn’t provide funding to expand any services.

Legislators and the Malloy administration are working to close a projected deficit approaching $1.5 billion in the next fiscal year, a shortfall of more than 7 percent of the annual operating budget.

Some advocates for people with mental illness and early childhood interventions have said that without additional resources, they’re unsure how much the bill the Senate passed Thursday can achieve.

Bartolomeo, a freshman senator, was praised by her colleagues not only for building bipartisan legislative support for the measure, but for developing it in cooperation with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office, the state Commission on Children, educators, health care providers and the families of the children killed in Newtown.

Lawmakers have increased scrutiny in potential gaps in mental health screening and the availability of treatment for children since Adam Lanza, 20, opened fire with automatic weapons at Sandy Hook elementary, killing 20 children and six adults.

“We all made a pledge and a vow to work on this,” following the shooting, Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. “And this is part of that work.”