AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Childrens’ Alliance has released its first report focusing specifically on the mental health issues facing Maine kids, and the 60-page report gives the state mixed reviews for tackling the issues.
“This report, like our Kids Count reports in the past, has a combination of good news and not-so-good news,” said Alliance President Dean Crocker at a State House news conference.
He said a major failure is the lack of screening for mental health and learning disabilities at an early age. He said only 22 percent of Maine kids are being screened before starting school, according to census data.
“That’s a substantial problem because research has told us that our investments in the first two years, our intervention at that point is the most critical,” he said. “It’s when we get the biggest bang for the buck, and for too many kids we are missing it.”
Crocker said in the last school year, 812 children were first identified as needing special services when they started school. There were already 875 children receiving services through Children’s Development Services, a division of the Maine Department of Education, when they started school.
“This report is a landmark,” said First Lady Karen Baldacci, chairwoman of the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet. “It will have a lasting value in guiding Maine policy makers and keeping the focus of our efforts where it belongs, which is on the success and well being of each and every child that lives in Maine.”
She said there are an increasing number of communities in the state offering early childhood programs that are providing screening and help. She said the new Educare center in Waterville is also an example of looking at a child’s needs holistically.
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said the early investment in kids should save taxpayers money in the long run, not cost more.
“We have been working with a number of practitioners, physicians, around giving them tools for screening for autism and the autism spectrum disorders,” she said in an interview. “This is not a new cost to the state; this is using what we have differently.”
Harvey said the research across department lines developing data about what works for kids and what is not working is crucial to providing needed services. She said the state cannot afford to fund programs that do not work.
“Assessing early, intervening early, there are many, many children that will not need the kind of services we are delivering today in their middle years,” she said. “All of what we are doing, over time, will reduce our costs.”
Part of the cost of the report was funded by the Maine Health Access Foundation. Vice President Barbara Leonard said the foundation is funding several projects to help integrate mental health needs into the traditional health care system.
“Integrating mental health and behavioral health services with broader health and social services is an absolute imperative,” she said. “A key element of making this work is actually linking the data systems so that the mental health and other data can be integrated to paint a complete picture.”
She said the report is a first step to establish a common set of indicators for children’s mental health to measure how the state is doing and what needs to be done better.
The study not only addressed young children, but kids through their teen years. Crocker said there is good news in that the state has fewer children in its care than five years ago and that more of the foster care placements that are made are with relatives of the child. He said another good news item is that there are fewer juveniles being jailed.
The report also notes there is a clear connection between both substance abuse and mental health problems and child abuse and mental health issues. The child abuse data indicate that nearly 60 percent of the substantiated cases of child abuse included a previous report of abuse or neglect.
“The studies are all clear, that the best cure is to not let our kids get into the child welfare system in the first place,” Crocker said. “Early intervention works.”