A new report from the Maine Children’s Alliance is important for what it can’t tell policymakers — whether the state’s many services are working. As with many other state policies and programs, there are dozens of well-meaning efforts, some of which appear to have good results.
But without a comprehensive way to evaluate the outcomes of the state’s many mental health services for children, which are provided by state agencies and private institutions, it is impossible to know which ones work the best and, therefore, should be replicated elsewhere.
This shortchanges children with mental health needs as well as the taxpayers who finance many of the needed services.
The report found that too few young children are evaluated for potential mental health problems. Less than a quarter of the state’s children younger than 5 were screened. This lack of screening means that thousands of children are likely not getting the help they will need to succeed in school and at home.
“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,” said Dean Crocker, president of the Maine Children’s Alliance. “It’s when we get the biggest bang for the buck, and for too many kids we are missing it.”
At a press conference releasing the report last week, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said the early investment in kids would save taxpayers money in the long run, not cost more.
“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,” Commissioner Harvey said. “All of what we are doing, over time, will reduce our costs.”
Further, developing data about what works for kids and what is not working is crucial to providing needed services — and saving money. The state cannot afford to fund programs that do not work, the commissioner said.
As for actual facts and figures, there was a mix of good and bad news in the report. On the positive side, kinship care — the practice of placing children removed from their homes with relatives — increased by 18 percent between 2006 and 2008. Issues that need attention include the high percent-age of children receiving substance abuse treatment who also have mental health needs and the co-occurrence of parental alcoholism and family violence with youth mental health problems.
By identifying what the state does well and what needs to be improved — along with what policymakers and others don’t know — the Maine Children’s Alliance has done a great service with this report.