Features

State: Disturbed youth not getting needed psychiatric counseling

The Associated Press
Friday October 19, 2001

SACRAMENTO — California’s disturbed youth are not receiving necessary and available psychiatric services, causing overcrowding in juvenile jails and mental hospitals, a state watchdog reported. 

More than one million children statewide will experience an emotional or behavioral disorder this year, but more than 600,000 will not receive adequate treatment, concluded the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan agency that issues studies to the governor and Legislature. 

Children “endure a system that turns them away until their needs are severe,” Little Hoover Chairman Michael E. Alpert said Wednesday. 

“Because there are no standards, children often do not receive the right care at the right time in the right way. Because we do not measure outcomes, there is no pressure on the system to improve,” he said. 

A California Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman declined to discuss the report specifically, saying officials were still reviewing it. But she defended the department’s efforts to treat all of the state’s mentally ill. 

“There is a commitment to provide the best care possible to mentally ill children and adults,” said Bertha Gorman. 

According to the commission, more than 50,000 children in foster care who may need mental health services do not get them, and many children in the juvenile justice system statewide, including victims of abuse and neglect, do not receive treatment. 

The report suggested that lack of funding is not the problem, noting that more than $56 billion will be spent next year for child and family services. The problem, the report indicated, is that no coherent, coordinated approach is taken in addressing mental health needs. 

No single state agency is accountable for coordinating care, the panel said. Various eligibility requirements often mean parents, children and even siblings receive different services from different providers. 

“For some of these children their symptoms will go unnoticed; their needs will not be understood,” the Little Hoover report said. “For others, the symptoms will be obvious to parents, teachers and doctors, but they will not receive attention because of how California organizes, funds and delivers mental health and other services.” 

Among other things, the panel recommends ensuring that all families are covered by public or private mental health insurance, addressing the problems of duplications and gaps in services, creating a cabinet-level secretary for children services, and addressing the shortage of qualified mental health specialists. 

According to the report, nearly a third of Los Angeles County’s public psychiatrist jobs are unfilled. Nearly a quarter of the county’s mental health directors have retired in the last five years and another quarter are expected to retire in the next five years.