Risky moves for at-risk chil­dren

Gov. McDonnell’s pro­posed cuts may come back to haunt Vir­ginia.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

GOV. ROBERT F. McDONNELL of Vir­ginia has pro­posed to re­duce fund­ing for ser­vices for at-risk chil­dren and teenagers. Those af­fected would in­clude youths with mental health, emo­tional and be­hav­ioral prob­lems, or with autism; and young peo­ple liv­ing with spe­cially trained fos­ter par­ents. The cuts would save a rel­a­tive pit­tance: $12.5 mil­lion in the con­text of the state’s $16 bil­lion gen­eral fund bud­get for the fis­cal year start­ing this July. The po­ten­tial cost — to chil­dren, fam­i­lies, com­mu­ni­ties and the state— is great.

By some es­ti­mates, one in five Amer­i­can chil­dren has some sort of mental health dis­or­der; of that pop­u­la­tion, only a fifth get the ser­vices and treat­ment they need. In Vir­ginia, the 2007 mas­sacre at Vir­ginia Tech led to an over­haul and some ad­di­tional money in the mental health sys­tem for adults. Mean­while, most such state ser­vices for youths, woe­fully in­ad­e­quate to start with, were not im­proved.

When so­cial work­ers, ther­a­pists and other mental health spe­cial­ists are able to in­ter­vene early, they can of­ten help avoid more se­vere prob­lems — and even more ex­pen­sive state-pro­vided ser­vices — a few years down the line. Fur­ther de­plet­ing funds for trou­bled youths — es­pe­cially when the bud­getary ben­e­fit is so slight— seems like folly.

In par­tic­u­lar, two of Mr. McDonnell’s pro­posed changes would likely per­mit some chil­dren al­ready in trou­ble to slip through the cracks. One would ax $5 mil­lion in spend­ing by sim­ply re­fus­ing to pay for men­tal­health ser­vices pro­vided to about 1,375 youth now cov­ered by state fund­ing. These are youth whose prob­lems don’t fit neatly into fed­er­ally man­dated cat­e­gories for which the state must pay, but who nonethe­less have mental health prob­lems that put them at acute risk; in many cases, they are al­ready in the ju­ve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, in de­ten­tion or on pa­role.

It’s pos­si­ble that the McDonnell ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves lo­cal gov­ern­ments will be forced to pick up the tab; some may. But given the se­vere bud­get crunches fac­ing lo­cal­i­ties, oth­ers may throw up their hands.

An­other of the gover­nor’s ideas is to off­load state spend­ing, in this case about $7.5 mil­lion, to lo­cal­i­ties by fid­dling with a state fund­ing for­mula that sup­ports trou­bled youth — of­ten those who have been abused or ne­glected — liv­ing with spe­cially trained fos­ter par­ents. The state ar­gues that many are get­ting more in­ten­sive treat­ment than they re­quire and are stay­ing in fos­ter care too long. But if the gover­nor’s pro­posal goes for­ward, it could prompt lo­cal­i­ties to up­root chil­dren from those fos­ter homes and send them to res­i­den­tial treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties — es­sen­tially, large state in­sti­tu­tions — that are far­ther from their fam­i­lies and homes. That would re­verse a salu­tary trend to­ward closer-to-home treat­ment in re­cent years.

State leg­is­la­tors concerned with at-risk youth have in­tro­duced amend­ments to re­verse these cuts. Other law­mak­ers should take a hard look and mea­sure the sav­ings in the gover­nor’s pro­pos­als against the likely dam­age they would do.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.