Forum Focuses Attention on Children’s Mental Health in California

More than 100 people assembled at Lincoln Child Center in West Oakland to discuss children’s mental health issues.  Photo by Nicole Barton

More than 100 people assembled at Lincoln Child Center in West Oakland to discuss children’s mental health issues.
Photo by Nicole Barton

Last Friday, a handful of California lawmakers, experts in children’s mental health and advocates assembled at West Oakland’s Lincoln Child Center for a forum on children’s mental health policy.

The gathering, which packed Lincoln’s auditorium, was more a chance to publicly address children’s mental health issues than commence on substantive changes.

Carroll Schroeder, the head of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, which represents hundreds of service providers from group homes to residential treatment facilities, was blunt in his assessment of where the state stands on the issue.

“This state needs a mental health policy,” Schroeder said from behind a bank of tables, at which sat some of Northern California’s most prominent leaders in services for children with mental health needs. “Everything else we are doing is kind of shoving our fingers in the dike.”

While State Assembly Members Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) and Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) did not offer any concrete assurances that they would endeavor to build such a comprehensive system, others on the panel were explicit in the changes they would like to see happen first.

Patrick Gardner, the executive director of Young Minds Advocacy and the lead attorney in the landmark Katie A. v. Bonta lawsuit that compelled the state to increase mental health services to child welfare-involved children and youth, offered three points where he would like to see immediate action.

These were “equitable access to child-centered care,” front-loading of state mental health dollars so that counties can expand services for children and youth, and ensuring quality mental health services.

“The state of California can’t tell us what they are buying in terms of children’s mental health services,” Gardner said. “It’s no good to spend billions on services that don’t work.”

Lincoln Child Center CEO Chris Stoner-Mertz, the host of the event, called for programs to reduce truancy, offer more crisis intervention, deliver more mental health services in school and ensure that children in juvenile hall are not dropped from Medi-Cal mental health services.

Alameda County Health Care Services Agency Director Alex Briscoe warned state lawmakers that the increased reliance on “managed care” health care services since the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act could have unintended consequences for delivery of children’s mental health services.

“Do people get what they need?” Briscoe asked. “What I am calling into question is basic access. That is something managed care can’t manage away.”

Stoner-Mertz promised to “huddle” with Thurmond, Bonta, Hancock and the other panel members over the next few months and come back with more concrete plans for how to improve the state’s children’s mental health system.

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