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Last year, CT launched 'historic' kids mental health programs. This year, there may be no funding.

Alex Putterman, Staff writer

April 21, 2023

CT Insider

Last year, Connecticut's state legislature passed several large bills establishing new children's mental health services meant to combat increased depression, anxiety and suicide.

This year, lawmakers may not approve enough funding for some of those programs to even get off the ground.

A budget proposal from the legislature's Appropriations Committee on Tuesday sparked frustration from a wide range of nonprofit leaders, maybe most from those providing children's mental health services, who say they have watched the issue go from bipartisan focus to apparent afterthought in less than a year. "Last year this was the priority," said Hector Glynn, chief operating officer at The Village for Families & Children, a Hartford-based nonprofit. "How does nine months change where everyone is?"

Several major providers say proposed budgets from both the Appropriations Committee and Gov. Ned Lamont would essentially undo parts of last year's mental health bills, which Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike touted as necessary and historic.

At Wellmore, a behavioral health agency based in Waterbury, staff has worked for months to establish an urgent crisis center, a new level of care designed for children experiencing a mental health crisis. The center is likely to open next month, Wellmore CEO Gary Steck said Wednesday, but without funding won't last beyond early next year.

"If there's no guaranteed funding, we will be opening and closing it," Steck said. "No one's answering our questions, we have no committed funding, and we can't see it in the state budget."

Glynn said The Village is in a similar position, renovating buildings to add more crisis beds, with programs set to open in the coming weeks — then potentially close as soon as this fall.

For Child First, a program that provides mental health support to young children and their families, the Appropriations Committee's proposal would mean a loss of $5 million statewide, eliminating funding for at least 20 clinical teams serving 480 children, spokesperson Fran Benton said. While the program wouldn't disappear entirely, she said, it would be forced to downsize, leading to long waits for services.

"All of the Child First local affiliate agencies in CT all have wait lists to enroll," Benton said in an email. "Therefore, any further elimination of services will compound these wait times."

Last year's children's mental health bills, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and celebration, provided for more mental health services in schools, funds to help parents pay for treatment and a series of new programs to be run by nonprofits statewide, including urgent crisis centers. Though the new initiatives were mostly funded with federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act, providers assumed the state would replace that funding when it ran out.

Instead, funding was largely missing from Gov. Ned Lamont's budget proposal in February, as well as the Appropriation Committee's proposal on Tuesday. Some of the initiatives, including the urgent crisis centers, would receive almost no state funding at all in the proposed budgets, while others, such as Child First, would continue to receive some money but wouldn't see their ARPA funds replaced.

The expiration of ARPA funds has caused problems throughout the budget, as organizations that relied on federal money in recent years have looked to the state for greater allotments.

Sen. Cathy Osten, a Democrat from Sprague who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee, acknowledged Tuesday that advocates and non-profits would likely be unhappy with the committee's proposal but noted that lawmakers were constrained by fiscal guardrails meant to limit spending. The committee, Osten said, had chosen to prioritize K-12 and higher education in place of more money for nonprofit agencies.

"We have not made everyone happy this year," she said. "We know that almost everybody is going to want more."

Lamont on Thursday emphasized his desire for a balanced budget within the guardrails but said he would like to do more for non-profits if possible and would work with the legislature to fill any "gaps" in spending on children's mental health.

At a news conference Thursday, nonprofit leaders said the Appropriations Committee's proposed budget would devastate their agencies, likely leading to the elimination of jobs and programs.

"This is a very desperate time," said Steve Girelli, CEO of Klingberg Family Centers, which offers children's behavioral health programs among other services. "What happens in the legislature in the next weeks is really going to be critical to the near-term and long-term future of kids and families."

Sarah Eagan, the state's child advocate, said in an email she was highly concerned about the lack of funding for children's mental health services and criticized the legislature's self-imposed guardrails.

"It’s less about the policy choices inherent in the budget and more about the spending cap and how it is impacting the state’s ability to meet people’s needs," Eagan said. "Hopefully, agreement can be had between legislative leaders and the governor’s office to address the austere impact of the cap because I’m not sure how else we can move forward."

Now that both Lamont and the Appropriations Committee have released their budget proposals, the two sides have until June 7 to reach a compromise. Behavioral health providers said they hope lawmakers will eventually find money for children's mental health but have received little reassurance.

Steck recently testified before the Appropriations Committee about the need for behavioral health funding. He said he received a warm reception from legislators, leaving him "at a complete loss" when the money wasn't included in the committee's budget proposal.

"Even though everyone individually seems to be saying this is important, there is (almost) no committed funding beyond this year," Steck said. "It's a head-scratcher."

Glynn, from The Village, noted that the major mental health bills passed last year came in response to a crisis among children in Connecticut and beyond. The situation has not meaningfully improved in the year since, he said, with kids still stuck in hospital emergency departments as they await services, yet the legislature appears to have lost interest.

"Are we going to wait again to see all the headlines about children being stuck in EDs until something gets done again?" he said.

Staff writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report.

Courtesy of CT Insider

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