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June 21, 2012 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

Funders focus on disconnected youth in the District

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

At the last Children, Youth, and Families Working Group meeting, members focused on the mental health needs of teens – particularly youth in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, parenting teens, and youth otherwise disconnected from their families, schools, or needed services. Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, Dr. Lee Beers, director of the Healthy Generations Program at Children’s National Medical Center, and Mark Sweeney, executive director of the Capital Region Children’s Center, discussed the critical need for high quality mental health services for youth, the gaps in service in D.C., and the role the philanthropic community can play in improving the system.

The Healthy Generations Program at Children’s National Medical Center, which provides integrated and comprehensive medical, mental health, and social work services for teen parents and their children, and Capital Region Children’s Center, which provides mental health wraparound services to children and families, are recognized as providing high quality, evidence-based services with positive outcomes for their clients. However, due to funding limitations, their reach is limited to hundreds of families rather than the thousands of District children and families in need.

All three speakers emphasized the importance of early intervention in treating mental health issues, and the positive impact that quality, community-based treatment can have on the life of young adults. Unfortunately, of the estimated 11,000 kids in D.C. in need of mental health services, little more than half receive any services at all. Moreover, existing Medicaid reimbursement guidelines do not allow for services to be delivered in the evidence-based manner that is most effective for teens – for instance, through home visits or by providing mental health services in the same location and at the same time as medical services.

According to the speakers, there is a clear role for the philanthropic community to play in reforming the children’s mental health system in D.C. One of the biggest challenges facing the medical and nonprofit providers supporting disconnected youth is the sheer complexity of the bureaucracy of the city’s Medicaid program, which covers over 75 percent of children in D.C. While there are a number of strong and replicable programs already serving youth, there is a dearth of quality service providers, and far too many young people go without needed services.

Large scale impact requires an increase in public, in addition to private, funding, and this can’t be achieved without systemic reform of the Medicaid system in D.C. Many of the bureaucratic barriers are technicalities that with sufficient political will could be changed. By lending its support to advocacy efforts for reform, the philanthropic community would have a much greater impact on improving the lives of youth in the District.

WRAG members: Summaries of past meetings on children’s mental health are available here.

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