Program targets children's mental health services

INDIANAPOLIS - A pilot program designed to provide mental health services that can prevent children from entering the court system is going well and has been expanded, state officials say.

The state launched the program in mid-November in southeastern Indiana and expanded it to Elkhart and St. Joseph counties in January.

"It's really gone better than planned -- better than we ever expected," Lisa Rich, deputy director of services and outcomes with the Indiana Department of Child Services, told The Times in Munster.

A Times investigation last year found many agencies were failing to provide intensive services to some children with severe mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. Some of those children wound up in the court system as juvenile delinquents or as children in need of services, while in other cases, parents falsely 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.

Under the pilot program, school officials, community members, judges, probation officers, prosecutors and public defenders refer children who need mental health services to a community mental health center access site. The site evaluates children's levels of need.

Medicaid-eligible families of children who meet the level of need are referred to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction. DCS agreed to pay for services for children whose families aren't eligible for Medicaid, or whose private insurance won't cover the cost.

Families of children who don't meet the level of need are referred to DCS' community partners program for services.

So far, 19 children have been referred to the pilot program, Rich said. Four of those children are receiving services paid by DCS.

Brenda Konradi, project director for One Community One Family, welcomed the willingness of agencies to work together to ensure children get needed services.

"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 helping to close the gap in funding for children who need services but whose private insurance companies won't pay for the level needed.

"It's frustrating when you know people need help, and they can't get it because private insurance doesn't pay," she said.

Rich said DCS is tracking the outcomes of the children referred to the program. The next step will be to see how the system functions in Elkhart and St. Joseph counties, which have 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.

She said there is no date yet to roll out the system statewide.

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