Funding for children’s mental health missing from CT’s proposed budget

Funding for children's mental health missing from CT's proposed budget

Last year, the Connecticut State Legislature passed several important bills establishing new children’s mental health services to address rising depression, anxiety and suicide.

This year, lawmakers may not approve enough funding for some of these programs to even get started.

A budget proposal from the legislature’s appropriations committee on Tuesday sparked frustration among a wide range of nonprofit leaders, perhaps most of those providing children’s mental health services, who say seeing the issue go from a bipartisan approach to an afterthought in less than a year.

“Last year, that was the priority,” said Hector Glynn, chief operating officer of The Village for Families & Children, a Hartford-based nonprofit. “How does nine months change where everyone is?”

Several major suppliers say that the budgets proposed by both the Appropriations Committee and Gov. Ned Lamont would essentially undo parts of last year’s mental health bills, which Democratic and Republican lawmakers have touted as necessary and historic.

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

“If there’s no secured funding, we’ll open it and close it,” Steck said. “No one is 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 slated 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 proposal would mean a loss of $5 million statewide, eliminating funding for at least 20 teams clinics serving 480 children, spokeswoman Fran Benton said. Although the program would not disappear completely, she said, it would be forced to downsize, leading to long waits for services.

“All local Child First affiliate agencies in CT all have waiting lists to sign up,” Benton said in an email. “Therefore, any further elimination of services will worsen these wait times.”

Last year’s children’s mental health bills, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and celebration, included more mental health services in schools, funds to help parents pay for treatment and a series of new programs to be run by nonprofits across the state, including emergency crisis centers. Although the new initiatives were primarily funded by federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, vendors assumed that 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 from the appropriations committee’s proposal on Tuesday. Some of the initiatives, including the emergency crisis centers, would receive almost no state funding in the proposed budgets, while others, like Child First, would continue to receive money but would not see their replaced ARPA funds.

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

Senator Cathy Osten, a Democrat from Sprague who co-chairs the appropriations committee, acknowledged on Tuesday that advocates and nonprofits would likely be unhappy with the committee’s proposal, but noted that lawmakers were constrained by watchdogs. tax loopholes designed to limit spending. The committee, Osten said, had chosen to prioritize elementary and secondary education over more money for nonprofits.

“We haven’t made everyone happy this year,” she said. “We know almost everyone will want more.”

Lamont underscored Thursday his desire for a balanced budget in the safeguards, but said he would like to do more for nonprofits if possible and would work with the legislature to close “gaps” in spending for children’s mental health.

At a news conference Thursday, nonprofit leaders said the Appropriations Committee’s proposed budget would devastate their agencies, likely resulting in the loss of jobs and programs.

“It’s a very desperate time,” said Steve Girelli, CEO of Klingberg Family Centers, which offers behavioral health programs for children, among other services. “What happens in the legislature in the next few weeks will be really crucial for the short and long term future of children and families.”

Sarah Eagan, the state’s children’s advocate, said in an email that she was very 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 its impact on the state’s ability to meet the needs of the people,” Eagan said. “I hope an agreement can be reached between legislative leaders and the governor’s office to deal with the austere impact of the cap, because I don’t know how else we can move forward.”

Now that 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 hoped lawmakers would eventually find money for children’s mental health, but received little reassurance.

Steck recently testified before the appropriations committee about the need for behavioral health funding. He said he received a warm welcome from lawmakers, leaving him “completely lost” when the money was not included in the committee’s budget proposal.

“Even though everyone seems to be saying it’s important, there’s (almost) no committed funding beyond this year,” Steck said. “It’s a puzzle.”

Glynn, of The Village, noted that major mental health bills passed last year came in response to a crisis among children in Connecticut and beyond. The situation hasn’t improved significantly in the year since, he said, with children still stuck in hospital emergency departments awaiting services, but the legislature appears to have lost. any interest.

“Are we still going to wait to see all the headlines about kids stuck in emergency departments until something is done again?” he said.

Writer Ken Dixon contributed to this report.

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