Last week we learned that state funds for critical programs that serve high-risk youth and families was “swept” as “an inadvertent casualty” of the transfer of juvenile justice services and its funds from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to the Court Support Services Division (CSSD), a branch of the Department of Justice.  The transfer resulted in a $7 million shortfall for DCF-funded behavioral health services.

Letters have been sent to providers informing them funding for these programs will be eliminated as of June 30, 2018.  And the high-risk children are those with substance use, mental health, and behavioral problems severe enough to land them in juvenile court and in jeopardy of out-of-home placement. One hundred kids and their families, in one Waterbury program alone, are to be terminated from services.

I became aware of this, as I have the privilege to serve as State Sen. John Kissel’s designee on the Connecticut Alcohol and Drug Policy Council (ADPC), a committee that was re-invigorated in 2016 to stem the tide of overdose deaths that sweep our state and the nation. I say privileged because the level of commitment on the part of providers, people in recovery, family members, and public officials for combating this issue has been awe inspiring. And in this role, I need to talk about a huge mistake that’s being made.

The programs to be cut, for example Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT), are the most-effective, and well-studied, interventions for youth with substance misuse and other emotional, and behavioral health challenges.  These are intensive approaches that are not covered by most insurance. MDFT works with children and their family in the community. Everyone in that youth’s world: parents, coach, faith-community leader, grand-parents, teacher, friends, and siblings become a part of the solution. The payoff is huge, both financially and in getting that kid—and their family– back on track.

Outcomes, to list a few, include: decreased criminal and substance misuse behavior in both the youth and their family, improved mental health, greater parental competency, and better school retention and performance. For those who need to see the money, these programs take kids at risk of out-of-home placements, which are hugely expensive to the taxpayer, and make them unnecessary in most cases.  Cutting these services is the definition of penny wise and pound foolish.

Already, we feel the impact, as more youth languish in emergency rooms, are admitted to Connecticut’s overwhelmed inpatient psychiatric units, or sent to big-ticket residential programs in other states. For those unaware of such arrangements, these can carry a price tag of over $1 million/child/year.  In comparison, restoring the budget shortfall can only be seen as a wise investment.

The loss of these programs for the families and youth that depend on them is huge. From a public-health perspective we are replacing interventions meant to stop the spread of problems in many kids and funneling it to a few. This was not thought out, and I’d urge our legislature and the governor to better weigh the pros and cons of their actions.

It boils down to this. We closed Connecticut’s juvenile detention facility. You know, the place we send kids with delinquent behavior when all else has failed. Those kids haven’t disappeared, and this transfer of funds is meant to set up new, and smaller “home-like” residential programs for them. That’s great, they’re needed. But the problem is that the kids at greatest risk for landing in a detention facility, “home-like” or otherwise, have just been defunded.

It’s not a case of one or the other. Connecticut needs both, and we must not pull the plug on evidence-based interventions that help move a child from a path that leads to prison or to death at the end of a heroin needle. These are real kids and families, they are not hopeless cases, and there’s data to back that.

If what I’ve just explained makes sense and seems important to you, please contact your legislators and the governor to let them now. And do it now. We have to educate ourselves about what’s happening and fight to maintain and enhance behavioral health services that meet the needs of these kids, prevent downstream casualties, and in the end, save the taxpayer some money.

Marcia DuFore is Executive Director of the North Central Regional Mental Health Board in Suffield and is a member of the Connecticut Alcohol and Drug Policy Council.

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