INDIANAPOLIS | State officials unveiled a plan Monday hoping to ensure parents don't have to plead guilty to neglect in order to secure services for their children with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.

A Times investigation published earlier this year found there has been a multi-agency 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.

"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, chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Child Services, said in a written statement.

Officials from DCS, the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction, the Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services, Department of Education, juvenile courts and prosecutors' offices developed a plan to get children needed services without court intervention.

The plan was announced Monday during a Commission on Mental Health and Addiction legislative committee meeting in Indianapolis.

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 has 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.

State officials said they hope the plan will close the gap in services for the segment of children whose families have struggled to secure services. Child welfare advocates say they are cautiously optimistic about it but still worry about what will happen with the children who need intensive services now and can't afford to wait for the plan to be implemented.

Currently, children with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities are being referred to a variety of agencies and entities. More than a dozen region parents told The Times they experienced difficulty navigating that maze.

Ryan said experts estimated between 300 and 350 Indiana children will be affected by the proposed plan. He said it will cost DCS roughly $25 million per year to fund, at a cost of more than $70,000 per child.

Ryan said he hopes the state's plan will keep families from having to "abandon" their children at a facility and keep parents from having to plead guilty to neglect charges to obtain needed mental health services.

"I can't think of a more difficult decision for parents to make," he said.

The plan will be tested in Lawrenceburg, Ind., for two months before being rolled out statewide next year, officials said.