A Parent’s Response to Idaho’s S1114
This morning, I gave my first public testimony to the Health and Welfare committee of the Idaho House of Representatives about S1114, a bill that would consolidate currently fragmented mental health services into regional health boards with increased local authority.
This sounds like a good thing, and it is, as a 2008 WICHE report demonstrated.
So why was I there to oppose the bill in its current form?
Like all issues related to mental health and public services, it’s complicated. My primary reason for opposing the measure was its source of funding for those regional health boards. Rather than seek new appropriations, Idaho Behavioral Health Director Ross Edmunds proposed shifting funds from a Children’s Mental Health surplus.
Wait, hold on. Children’s Mental Health has a surplus?!?
The problem (and no one disagrees with me) is this: currently, the only way for children in Idaho to get access to mental health services is to be on Medicaid or to commit a crime. Yep, you heard me. If your kid needs resources, you have to charge him or her with a crime.
The criminalization of mental illness, especially in children, is just flat out wrong. It's bad public policy, and it ends up being costly and dangerous.
Here’s my direct testimony to the committee:
When my 13-year old son was admitted to Intermountain in December 2012, he screamed at the police officer who was trying to help him, “I wish I had a knife so I could run at you and you would have to shoot me.” I will never forget the look of horror in that brave officer’s eyes.
Later that week, my son’s social worker called and recommended that I press charges against him to “get him back in the court system so he can get the services he needs.” I am fortunate to have a good job with health benefits, but many of the services my son needs, like PSR and Occupational Therapy, are not covered by my insurance.
In “off the record” conversations over my many years of interactions with the Department of Health and Welfare, well-meaning social workers have suggested that it might be better for my son if I were a so-called “welfare mom” because I could get better access to services.
I realize that the focus of SB1114 is on adult mental health. But the lack of community support for parents of children with mental health concerns means hours of missed work, unpredictable schedules, the constant fear of a telephone call from the school, thousands of dollars in medical bills for services that aren’t covered. My family suffers. My other children suffer. And my son will be an adult all too soon.
We need a system that is proactive rather than reactive. The bill in its current form is still crisis-based and does not really address the needs of children with mental illness in Idaho—in fact, it actually takes money from Children’s Mental Health to pay for reorganization of regional health boards, at a time when many parents, like me, are told that the only way they can access help is through the courts. But I believe that by focusing our efforts on early diagnosis, intervention, and ongoing treatment for our children, we can save money and lives.
After hearing my testimony and the testimony of a NAMI representative and mother Kathy Merce; Howard Belodoff, the lawyer who has been prosecuting Idaho’s landmark children’s mental health case Jeff D. for 33 years, and Jim Baugh, Disability Rights Idaho Executive Director, the committee voted to send the bill to General Orders for further review.
And here’s why it’s complicated. In drafting this bill, Ross Edmunds has done an incredible job with limited resources. S1114 is a baby step, to be sure. But it’s a baby step in the right direction, creating greater efficiency, providing more regional control, and improving access to resources for people with mental illness in crisis. Sending the bill to General Orders rather than approving it as it stands runs the very real risk of allowing this important legislation to die on the House floor.
So I left the House today feeling both glad and anxious. I’m glad that my voice could be heard and that I could share my very personal concerns with the way we treat mentally ill children in Idaho. But I’m anxious that because I spoke, in the end, nothing will happen.
Welcome to democracy.