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D.C. Shows 'Promising Beginnings' On Children's Mental Health Issues

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Elizabeth Ann Collette: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fromcolettewithlove/467705377/

In the 2013 Children's Mental Health Report Card, advocates say D.C. has made some progress when it comes to serving children, but there's still a long way to go.

Judith Sandalow is the executive director of Children's Law Center, a nonprofit in D.C. She says there are "promising beginnings" when it comes to how the District serves children with mental health needs. For example, she says there's a new program that trains daycare staff on how to screen children younger than five. The District has received also federal grants to treat children in foster care and better coordinate services. Sandalow also says area hospitals and government agencies are working together to educate doctors.

"Children who receive Medicaid as their insurance, which is most of the children in the District, pediatricians are required to screen children for mental health problems," Sandalow says. "Currently, however, pediatricians don't have the tools or know of their obligation. So the District is putting together a group of mental health professions who can consult with local pediatricians about mental health issues."

But Sandalow says there is still a long way to go. She says there are too many agencies involved leading to what she calls "bureaucratic fragmentation." And Sandalow says how soon a child gets treatment is also a problem.

"We all know if a child breaks her leg, we need to get her to the emergency room right away. Similarly, if a child has a very significant mental health issue she needs treatment quickly or she deteriorates," Sandalow says. "That deterioration could be suicidal, she could become violent, get behaviorally out of control in school and be expelled. There are all kinds of bad outcomes. 

Sandalow says regulations require a child to be seen for a mental health appointment within a week of being referred.

"Unfortunately in fiscal year 11 and then the begin of fiscal year 12, only 26 percent of children were seen within seven days, and more shockingly I think, only 50 percent within a full month," Sandalow says.

Sandalow says approximately 5000 children receive mental health services but estimates twice that number need help.


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