INDIANAPOLIS | The first phase of state officials' plan to close the gap in mental health services for children has been a success, one official said.
A Times investigation published last year found a multiagency failure to provide intensive services to some children with severe mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. Children who do not receive needed services may enter the court system as juvenile delinquents or as children in need of services.
In some cases, The Times learned, parents, who were dedicated to seeking care for their children, admitted to neglect to secure services.
"Everyone agrees — from state agencies, to prosecutors, to judges, to probation officers, to mental health experts, to families — that is not the way to help these kids," John Ryan, former director of the Indiana Department of Child Services, said last fall.
A pilot version of the plan kicked off in mid-November in the southeastern portion of the state, including Dearborn, Ohio, Switzerland, Franklin, Decatur and Ripley counties. It expanded in January into Elkhart and St. Joseph counties.
"It’s really gone better than planned — better than we ever expected," said Lisa Rich, DCS deputy director of services and outcomes.
Officials from DCS, the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction, the Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services, the Department of Education, juvenile courts and prosecutors' offices developed a plan to get children needed services without court intervention.
The plan calls for school officials, community members, judges, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders to refer children in need of mental health services to a community mental health center access site. The site would evaluate children's levels of need.
Under the plan, families of children who meet the level of need and are eligible for Medicaid will be referred to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction. DCS agreed to pay for the services for children whose families are not eligible for Medicaid, or whose private insurance will not cover the cost.
Families of children who do not meet the level of need will be referred to DCS' community partners program for services, according to the agency.
Rich said there have been 19 referrals into the pilot program since it started. Of those, four children are receiving services paid by DCS as part of its pledge to close the funding gap. Other children still are moving through the process or were not accepted because they already had access to services through probation departments, Medicaid or a Child in Need of Services petition, also known as a CHINS, Rich said.
One child who was referred to the program for physical disabilities was sent elsewhere because the pilot program is geared toward mental health, she said.
Officials working in the pilot program also are evaluating whether children who receive services through another system — such as probation or CHINS — are in the right one.
"Sometimes these families end up being served in an inappropriate funding system because they couldn’t access services," Rich said.
Rich said DCS is tracking what happens with all the children who were referred to the program.
No more operating in 'silos'
Brenda Konradi, project director for One Community One Family, said there has been a shift with agencies now being more willing to work together. One Community One Family is a partnership of local agencies working to improve child and family services in southeastern Indiana.
"It used to be everyone operated in silos," Konradi said. "We were almost in desperation mode. We have to work together to make things better. There's no option."
She said she's excited DCS is closing the gap in funding for children who need mental health services. Seeing a therapist every week or every other week isn't enough when a child is in need, and private insurance companies often won't pay for the more intense level of services that are needed, Konradi said.
"It's frustrating when you know people need help, and they can't get it because private insurance doesn't pay," she said.
Jeff Theetge, chief probation officer in Switzerland County, said he has opened cases on children just to get them services.
He said it was a preventative effort to get help for children with behavioral mental health issues so they didn't enter the criminal justice system as adults. Theetge said he hasn't referred anyone to the pilot program yet, but he appreciates having a place to refer children in those situations.
But he wonders how it will work in larger counties.
"We are such a small community, everybody knows everybody," Theetge said. "It's probably a lot different than it would be for a Marion County."
Rich said the next phase of the pilot is watching how the system functions in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties, which have much larger populations than the southeastern part of the state. The goal is to have contact with a potential family within one business day and have them in for an assessment within five business days, she said.
Rich said no date has been set for a statewide rollout of the system. She said officials still estimate the new program will cost DCS roughly $25 million per year.