While many child welfare advocates said Indiana's plan to close the gap in mental health services for children is a step in the right direction, others fear the proposal is nothing more than "blowing smoke."
The Indiana Department of Child Services announced Monday a plan to use community mental health centers to evaluate children who have mental illnesses and are a danger to themselves or others.
Officials from DCS, the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction and the Division of Disabilities and Rehabilitative Services worked with others to develop the plan to get children needed services without court intervention.
A Times investigation published earlier this year found there has been 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 had been dedicated to seeking care for their children — admitted to neglect in order to secure services.
The state's plan offers families, school officials, residents, judges, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders an avenue to secure mental health services for children without going through the court system.
But child welfare advocates say they are concerned the plan doesn't go far enough to address children's unmet mental health needs.
"This is blowing smoke," said Barbara Layton, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness - Porter County. "This is not enough."
Layton and other advocates who work with children said the state's plan does not address the dearth of providers who can handle the specialized needs of children with mental illnesses.
Layton said the families she works with have children who already have used community wraparound services and short-term residential placement with little success.
"These children have much more serious issues that a Band-Aid is not going to fix," she said.
Daniel Carter, a behavior therapist at Innovations in Learning in Merrillville, said he gives credit to DCS for stepping in to help catch children who "fall through the cracks."
But he wonders where agencies will place children who require the structure of residential placement but don't fit criteria at the facilities where beds are available. He said children he has worked with have been denied placement because their IQs are too low.
"I can't say it's a good thing until I see it actually functioning," Carter said.
Stopgap better than nothing?
DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said the agency's goal was to address the gap in services as quickly as possible. DCS has agreed to pay for services for children who meet the level of need but whose families aren't eligible for Medicaid or whose private insurance won't cover the cost.
"If we let the what-ifs keep us from getting out of the gate, we'll stay in the same place we've been for the last 30 years," McFarland said.
DCS Chief of Staff John Ryan said experts estimated between 300 and 350 Indiana children will be affected by the proposed plan at a cost of roughly $25 million per year.
Under the plan, local community mental health centers would evaluate children's levels of need.
Matt Brooks, CEO of the Indiana Council of Community Mental Health Centers Inc., said children whose circumstances put them or others in danger are a "heightened concern" and will be evaluated as quickly as possible. He said it may take up to a week.
Brooks said that assessment will drive the level of services a child receives. Children who do not meet the level of need will be referred to DCS' community partners program.
The plan only is geared toward helping children with mental illnesses or both a mental illness and developmental disability, Brooks said. It will not affect children who only have been diagnosed with a developmental disability.
Marni Lemons, deputy director of communications and media for the Family and Social Services Administration, said the Division of Mental Health and Addiction and the Division of Disabilities and Rehabilitative Services "strongly support" the proposal announced by DCS. She said the agency's processes and funding will remain the same for families who are eligible for Medicaid.
The state's proposed plan will be tested in Lawrenceburg, Ind., for two months before being rolled out statewide next year, state officials said.
In the interim, DCS's Ryan said, "We will continue to assess children in need and provide services to the child and family as appropriate."