In response to a federal court order, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an initiative of up to $90 million on Tuesday aimed at improving mental health services for thousands of children monitored by the county’s child welfare system.
The plan follows criticism that the county has been slow to reform the way it provides mental health care to foster children living with families.
County mental health officials said the plan would allow them to better assess the mental health needs of all children who come into contact with children’s social workers, not just those who were removed from their parents. It also calls for an expansion of intensive mental health services to kids at home, thereby helping them remain with their families.
The initiative stems from a 4-year-old legal settlement between the county and children’s rights groups. The groups alleged in a 2002 class-action lawsuit that the county routinely failed to provide foster children with adequate mental health care.
Lawyers who brought the lawsuit welcomed the county’s latest initiative, which was approved unanimously by the board, but said it did not adequately address how to treat thousands more children who were severely traumatized by abuse, neglect and abandonment.
“It is progress, and we encourage that, but I wouldn’t say that it meets their entire obligation. There’s a substantial way to go,” said Kimberly Lewis, an attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the groups that sued the county.
Although federal and state funding will pay for most of the initiative’s costs, supervisors asked budget officials to explain where the county will find $33 million for its financial obligation under the plan. Mental health and child welfare officials are scheduled to present a funding plan to supervisors Aug. 7 and said they expect few problems.
But there are other obstacles. The union that represents child welfare employees has yet to sign off on the plan, which involves more work for frontline social workers. In addition, the county has struggled to hire qualified mental health professionals, yet will have to recruit more under the plan.
The new plan dramatically expands the number of children who will be assessed for mental health problems. About 25,000 children now live in foster care, but the county’s Department of Children and Family Services continues to monitor an additional 13,000 who remain in their own homes.
Like other jurisdictions, Los Angeles County has acted on a growing body of research that indicates children are more likely to thrive if they remain in permanent families rather than go from foster home to foster home. As a result, social workers try to keep children with their families or quickly find them new families. Since 2002, the number of children in foster care has dropped from 28,000.
The county traditionally provided intensive mental health services to children in hospitals or group homes and has struggled to keep pace with the changes. But county officials said the new plan will bring services into children’s homes.
“They can receive whatever set of mental health services they require to be able to stay safely in one place rather than be moved from place to place to place,” said Dr. Charles J. Sophy, medical director of the county children’s services department.
No one is sure how many of the county’s foster children receive mental health care nor how many actually need it.
County officials estimate that about one-third of kids entering the child welfare system need mental health services. Lewis said studies indicate that at least half do.
In 2005, a panel of experts created under the settlement agreement reported to the federal court that the county was not moving quickly enough to improve mental health services for foster children. In November, U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz ordered the county to screen all children in the foster system, including those who live at home.
He also ordered the county to provide intensive mental health treatment at home to at least 500 more children.
Paul Vincent, chairman of the experts panel and director of the Alabama-based Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, applauded the county for making notable progress but said children continued to lack the intensive treatment at home that they need.
“The pace of expansion has been slow,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said the panel’s members support the county’s proposals and hope the Board of Supervisors will approve the necessary funding next month.
“We’re very happy that the board has approved it at this stage,” he said.
Under the plan, the assessments and improved services will be rolled out first in the Antelope Valley and southern and eastern portions of Los Angeles County. Mental health officials said they expected the changes to be fully implemented countywide within the next couple of years.