Health & Fitness

Families worry mental health cuts will send kids spiraling

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A week before Christmas, Judy Powelson was awaiting her son's first visit home in nine months with a mix of excitement and trepidation.

Earlier in the year, the 17-year-old's mental illness had spiraled out of control to the point that he attacked her, kicked a teacher in the groin and was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. But since he entered residential treatment funded in part by the state, she'd seen him go through marked improvements — getting a 3.11 GPA and being voted MVP in soccer.


FOR THE RECORD:
Mental health: An article in the Dec. 24 LATExtra section about the retirement of the director of the state's Department of Mental Health implied that Proposition 63 tax money goes exclusively for voluntary community-based mental health programs. The money can also be used to fund involuntary care. Also, the article erroneously identified Randall Hagar as president of the California Psychiatric Assn. Hagar is director of government affairs for the association. —


Now Powelson's son, identified in court papers as T.G., is one of 20,000 students across California whose mental health services may be in jeopardy in the new year because of a line-item veto by the governor. In October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed $133 million in funding for what are known as AB 3632 services, a 25-year-old program that requires state and local education and mental health agencies to jointly provide education-related mental health services.

Families with children who suffer from mental illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia and who depend on these services have been thrown into chaos, parents and advocates say. Several counties, including Orange and Alameda, have sent out notices indicating that the services will be discontinued in January, attorneys representing the parents said.

"If my son loses this treatment, I will lose my son," Powelson said, her voice quivering. "I will lose him to mental illness, I will lose him to the criminal justice system, to drug abuse, to suicide."

She has filed a declaration about her son's situation as part of a federal class-action lawsuit seeking to block cutbacks to or discontinuation of the services. This month, a federal judge in Los Angeles heard arguments from attorneys representing the families and various state and local agencies but said he would wait until the new year before considering whether to issue an injunction.

U.S. District Judge George Wu said it wasn't immediately clear what would happen come Jan. 14, when a temporary order restoring the funding for the services is due to expire. He said he also wanted to wait for the outcome of a separate state court case in Sacramento challenging the governor's veto, which is scheduled to be heard in early January.

"I understand that the state agencies are pointing the finger and saying, 'It's your problem, it's your problem, it's your problem,' " Wu said at the hearing, adding that each agency was "waiting for somebody to blink." But he said it wasn't the right time for him to issue an order because "it's a complicated situation.... Bad things have not happened, but may happen in the future based on how these agencies act."

Attorneys representing various state and county agencies said they were trying to determine where the funds would come from, not dodging their responsibilities. They also said the four named plaintiffs in the case were currently receiving the necessary treatment and had not been notified that it would be taken away.

"They're here prematurely," said Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen. Jennifer M. Kim, representing the governor's office and the California Department of Mental Health.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that a statewide court order was immediately necessary because vulnerable children were at risk of being harmed while the case was being litigated.

"Every day, a new county is saying they can't provide the services," said Laura Faer, an attorney for Public Counsel, which filed the class-action lawsuit along with Disability Rights California and the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher.

David Campos, whose son is the lead plaintiff, said he felt his child was being left behind while government agencies passed the blame.

"Everybody's waiting for somebody else to take the first step," said Campos, whose son, identified as A.C. in court papers, has been receiving counseling since kindergarten. Campos and his wife, Gail, have been trying to get help for their son ever since they adopted him at age 4 knowing he suffered the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and had been neglected and abused.

This summer, their son twice attempted suicide — swallowing half a bottle of Tylenol and trying to hang himself — and landed in juvenile hall. Through AB 3632 funding, he is receiving residential treatment for oppositional defiant disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder in Texas.

"When I heard the news [of the cut], I felt like I had been punched in the stomach," Gail Campos wrote in a declaration submitted with the court. "My son so desperately needs these services to get better, and I don't want him to end up in the criminal system or homeless."

Powelson said the treatment for her son, who has been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder and intermittent explosive disorder, had been like the "light at the end of the tunnel" for her family.

"The bad days before turned into bad weeks and bad months. My husband used to say it was like a piano falling from a tall building," she said. "Now, in treatment, he has a safe place to fall."

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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