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Lawmakers demand pediatric residential mental health services

Illinois lawmakers and advocates say children aren’t receiving the residential mental health...
Illinois lawmakers and advocates say children aren’t receiving the residential mental health care they need. Some argue this is a separate health crisis that must be addressed.(CNN)
Published: Dec. 8, 2021 at 7:02 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on the mental health of adults and children alike. While there are many options available for adults to get help, Illinois lawmakers and advocates say children are not receiving the residential care they need. Some argue this is a separate health crisis that must be addressed.

This isn’t a new problem. Illinois has seen a decline in human services available for residents since the budget impasse that lasted from 2015 to 2017.

Residential mental health facilities were dismantled under former Gov. Bruce Rauner. While the Pritzker administration continues to invest in this sector, children still end up on waiting lists instead of receiving mental health care.

One of the largest behavioral health care providers in Illinois said all kids should be treated in the least restrictive setting that is safe and effective. Dr. David Gomel, president of Rosecrance Health Services, explained children with Medicaid cannot access the same care that kids with private health insurance receive.

“When kids don’t get treatment, they cycle through hospitalizations and crisis services, their behaviors escalate, they lose time in school or they become involved with the legal system,” Gomel said. “All of these options are bad for kids and their families, are clinically proven inappropriate, and are expensive for the state.”

Gomel says many children wait in emergency rooms or are sent out of state for mental health services far from their families.

Rosecrance is working with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services to create new options to allow some kids on Medicaid to receive services. However, some providers are calling this the most significant pediatric behavioral health crisis they’ve ever seen.

Several lawmakers called for action as soon as possible and they want the Pritzker administration to create a mental health czar to address these issues.

Members from both sides of the aisle agree the administration must act sooner rather than later. Multiple lawmakers called on HFS officials to step up to the plate and address the issues.

Several state agencies are blaming each other for not ensuring children receive the proper care. Legislators said they are confused by the blame game between HFS, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the State Board of Education.

“What people are forgetting is that we are dealing with children, our most vulnerable voices,” said Rep. Terra Costa Howard (D-Lombard). “You all in these agencies are supposed to be doing this for them. Any voice that they have is their parents who themselves are spending time and resources. That is just not right. This is what’s wrong with government.”

The General Assembly passed several proposals over the past few years to fund more residential beds for behavioral health care patients. Still, they feel that money was not used properly.

Without these services, more kids end up in detention facilities because there is nowhere else for mental health treatment.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that if a child has a mental health issue that leads them into the justice system, the only place that they can go is into a correctional facility,” said Thomas Gregory, director of probation and court services for Vermillion County.

Gregory said that is not the way the system should work for children or young adults. He said juveniles should have rehabilitation services so they don’t come into the justice system later in their life.

HFS officials told lawmakers they’re waiting for federal funding to move forward with a stronger community mental health plan for children. That could take months, but Democrats and Republicans say children cannot wait any longer. What is available for parents with children in crisis right now?

“We have two ways of serving families right now,” said Kristine Herman, the Mental Health Bureau Chief for HFS. “The family support program, which we know is not perfect. We also have interim relief services so that parents can access PRTF services for their children. We’ve been discussing this with Rosecrance, and we have an agreement for them to help us out through the interim relief program.”

Lawmakers say that won’t meet the demand. Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park) said the program is not good enough, and the department must do better.

“We have kids that are dying and families that are losing their children because we aren’t fixing this. Ok, you have the idea. That’s wonderful. We all want the idea,” Conroy said. “But in the meantime, families are falling apart and children are dying. So we need to put a crisis plan in place until a few months from now, whenever those months come.”

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