Lawmaker pushes to review state program for children in mental health crisis

The Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is calling on state lawmakers to take urgent action to ensure children in mental health crisis get the help they need .

In response to a request from the IEA, State Senator Kimberly Lightford is sponsoring a measure calling for hearings to dissect the state’s beleaguered Screening, Assessment and Support Services program, known as from SASS. A proposed 15-member working group would assess the program by county and analyze whether current funding is sufficient.

“My concerns came from the success of the program,” Lightford said. “Does this really work? Why aren’t children getting the support they need, and what can we do about it? »

Through the SASS program, children from low-income families in crisis are supposed to be quickly assessed by an emergency worker and linked to treatment.

Illinois mental health providers see SASS as an essential lifeline for families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as young people are increasingly presenting to hospital emergency departments with suicidal thoughts. But a WBEZ investigation found the state is failing to ensure that thousands of children receive follow-up help, let alone the kind of intensive behavioral health support that many need.

About 40% of screening outcome data is missing for cases in the past five years that required rapid assessment by a crisis response worker. And there are few places to send emotionally distressed children, from mental hospital beds to outpatient therapy, especially for children from low-income families.

IEA President-elect Al Llorens said WBEZ’s investigation had raised alarm bells and lawmakers must now act. “I don’t think you can communicate the urgency too much,” he said.

“Some sort of comprehensive overview of this program is absolutely necessary,” Llorens said. “Since the pandemic, the issue of mental health has become a central concern for almost everyone. But when you get to the point of looking at those who live in great poverty, it’s exacerbated.

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, who heads the House Mental Health & Addiction Committee, called WBEZ’s reports “heartbreaking,” but not surprising given that the mental health system for all ages has long been fractured.

“At a bare minimum, these are real kids in crisis, we should definitely… follow the results,” LaPointe said. “It’s partly the quality, but partly the type of care children end up in after a SASS call. So the fact that this isn’t happening is something I’ll be looking to fix.

In a fact sheet, the IEA says social workers in Illinois schools are seeing an increase in the number of students in mental health crisis “and a failure of the SASS program to meet the needs of these students in a meaningful way. appropriate or timely”.

While SASS workers are supposed to screen children within 90 minutes, association members say they wait hours, sometimes late into the evening, for SASS workers to show up.

Their frustrations mirror what WBEZ found.

Llorens said the state has an additional responsibility to ensure that students from poor families receive intervention because they often attend schools that cannot provide intensive help.

He taught math for 30 years at Thornridge High School in the southern suburb of Dolton and said his district had one psychologist for all three district high schools with nearly 4,600 students.

“So you have children who, because of this lack of resources, fall through the cracks, and that’s a shame,” Llorens said.

Officials at the Illinois Department of Health and Family Services, which oversees SASS, agreed they needed to do better. But they are only just beginning to hold private insurers with Medicaid contracts accountable for what happens to young people. Illinois largely outsources the SASS program to private insurers.

They say a new program called Pathways to Success would better coordinate care and provide more intensive behavioral health support — part of the work that SASS providers and insurers are already expected to do. It is estimated that Pathways will cost taxpayers approximately $300 million per year once fully implemented.

State lawmakers must approve the task force. Rep. LaPointe pointed out that the state is working hard to build a more robust behavioral health workforce to provide more treatment.

A spokeswoman for Gov. JB Pritzker said she was told the task force is not moving forward because it encompasses work being done as part of the state’s broad plan to transform youth mental health. The plan includes general recommendations to strengthen the availability of crisis response for young people, but does not assess the current functioning of SASS.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government for WBEZ.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *