Resource crisis for youth in foster care with mental health issues

DENVER – A letter written to lawmakers and state leaders describes a public system that is failing to support young people in foster care who suffer from mental health issues.

The letter sent Sept. 9 by the Colorado Human Services Directors Association (CHSDA) and Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI) to Governor Jared Polis and the directors of the State Department of Human Services and Health Care Policy and Funding, says that the state’s system for serving Colorado’s sharpest children is failing. Nonprofits say the state does not have enough psychiatric services and beds in state-approved facilities to meet the mental health needs of children.

“There is also little responsibility for ensuring that institutions are able to meet the needs of the higher acuity children they are authorized to serve,” the letter said.

On Thursday, Gini Pingenot, Director of External Affairs at CCI, attended a meeting hosted by the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force. During the meeting, Jamie Ulrich, director of the Weld County Social Services Department, described in detail the mental health crisis a 15-year-old in detention in the county experienced while in Colorado.

“On January 5, 2020, she overdosed on Tylenol and Advil and was hospitalized for ten days,” Ulrich said. “On January 26, 2021, she wrapped a rope around her neck and stabbed herself in the leg and was hospitalized for seven days. On February 3, 2021, she attempted to strangle herself while at school with a computer cord and stabbed herself with a pencil.

Lexie Kuznick, director of the CHSDA association, believes the pandemic has fueled children’s mental health crisis. She said Ulrich’s description portrays the severe crisis.

“We have children and young people who have tried suicide a dozen times and cannot stabilize themselves,” Kuznick said.

She said social workers spend hours on the phone daily searching for facilities across the state and the United States for open beds to place children.

“We have kids stuck in emergency rooms for months sometimes,” Kuznick said.

Resources and social workers responsible for helping foster children are exhausted.

“We have child protection workers who stay with children in hotel rooms while we wait to find a bed,” Kuznick said.

Pingenot estimates that the state is short of around 500 to 600 beds, and the shortage leaves young people in limbo or bounces back in unstable and inadequate care environments.

“We have to send a lot of them out of state for the services that we really want to be able to provide to them here in the state,” Pingenot said. “We know the outcomes for the children we send out of state are not good, just because we separate them from any sense of family and support that might help them bounce back and overcome the trauma.”

Advocates are calling for transparency to help hold institutions accountable for prioritizing out-of-state children over local residents.

At the end of June, more than 4,200 children were in out-of-home care, according to the CHSDA.

A survey conducted by the association in 36 county welfare divisions found that 26 children and adolescents detained in the county are in a hospital, 24 have been placed in residential facilities out of state, and 91 are awaiting a treatment bed. The most glaring conclusion is that 69 young detainees in the county are missing and suspected of being on the run.

“We know the challenge involves even more children and youth than the county’s custody numbers alone represent,” the letter said.

Pingenot hopes the Behavioral Health Transformation task force injects the state’s welfare system with the funds needed to increase the number of beds and resources to meet the needs of young people struggling to cope. a trauma.

The state’s plans use stimulus funds to add between 15 and 20 crisis beds by November. The Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Funding is also hoping to use stimulus dollars to recruit providers with specialized programs, but the timeline is not clear and advocates say it won’t help the crisis. immediate.

In the long term, Colorado expects to have an additional 70 residential psychiatric facility beds from three new vendors as they change their licenses. But defenders argue that without accountability and tighter requirements, they fear the extra beds will fail to close the gap.

In May, the Colorado Children’s Hospital declared a state of emergency for youth mental health. The psychiatric unit of the hospital has been full for over a year, several patients brought in have thoughts of suicide.

“In large numbers, we also have several patients permanently in our hospital who no longer meet the criteria for medical or psychiatric admission, but because they have nowhere else to go (such as a foster home or a transitional residential treatment center), we are having serious difficulty getting them out, ”a statement from Children’s Hospital Colorado read.

With the start of the school year, the hospital expects the number of children admitted to emergency rooms with behavioral health needs to double. They estimate that around 50% will need to be admitted.

Kuznick believes lawmakers are taking the issue seriously. To help find a solution, she believes investing in beds, social workforces, and community behavioral health services statewide is critical.

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