It is unfortunate that it took a horrific tragedy -– the deaths of 20 young children –- to finally spur action. But, our legislators are to be lauded for seriously examining the lack of mental health services for children.
They uncovered a dark, troubling secret: a mental health crisis is affecting children and families in all of our cities and towns. By looking into the hearts of frustrated parents, doctors and mental health professionals, legislators learned what many of us have known for years. They saw scared parents unable to find services for their troubled teens, or when they did find services, no way to pay for them. They heard from emergency room directors faced with children in crisis and no effective way to treat them.
And, to their credit, they came up with a framework to make lasting change.
The children’s mental health bill passed by the legislature last week honors the memory of the children of Sandy Hook –- and the thousands of children who are traumatized by violence and poverty each day. But, only if we make it a reality.
Our legislators created a solid framework. Now together we have to build on it. And, we must have the political will to fund it. We must build bridges between different disciplines, agencies and sectors. We can do this if we keep the end goal in mind: healing children and preventing crises in families.
For us at The Village for Families & Children, it’s personal. Each year, we see the faces of 8,000 children…many of whom have suffered physical and emotional trauma in their early years. Children who, by age 3 or 4, act out in rage and frustration, because they know no other way to deal with their fear and pain.
Over 70 percent of the children in our preschool program come to us after being expelled –- sometimes three or more times -– from other preschools. These are three- and four-year-olds.
Fortunately, many of these children can be helped. But, it would be much better to intervene earlier -– to prevent a young child from feeling like a failure and parents from feeling powerless and hopeless.
That is why I am encouraged by the children’s mental health bill. It includes successful approaches, especially those that identify children in need of support before a crisis occurs. Assessing children’s mental health needs –- at the same time as their physical needs are assessed –- like in a pediatrician’s office makes the most sense.
Children can also be assessed effectively at other times and places. We have had success using a “mid-level developmental assessment” with young children who have developmental delays or behavioral problems. After a brief assessment, observing the child at play and interviews with the caregiver, the family is connected to needed supports.
The mom of one of our preschoolers tried for months to get her son seen by a psychologist after his preschool program said he was too aggressive to stay. “We just felt hopeless,” she said. “It was one of the most heartbreaking things you can go through as a mother. I was scared of him -– I just didn’t know what was going on –- and no one had answers.” At the Village, the three-year-old boy was assessed, entered the pre-school and received additional services.
Another way to reach at-risk children is through home visits by case coordinators and specially trained therapists. Through a program called Child First, families are connected with services, children’s behaviors improve and parents strengthen their parenting skills. Over time, the program has been found to improve children’s language acquisition, reduce maternal depression, and prevent abuse and neglect.
Community service providers have been responding to children and families in need – trying to both treat children in crisis and prevent crises from occurring. But funding for prevention and early intervention is minimal. We’ve been creative, piecing together different funding streams but unfortunately, only serving a fraction of those in need.
That’s why this bill is a welcome first step. It emphasizes prevention and early intervention, and builds off of effective, evidence-based approaches. Most importantly, it calls for integration and coordination of services. To be successful, we will need to create clear funding streams for services.
I commit our expertise and guidance, we’ll share our experience and insights, and we will support the building of a new system.
We can’t prevent all tragedies. But we must do more. The pain and frustration of children and families all over our state must ring in our ears, compelling us to create lasting solutions.