La. mental health program to cease

At the same time Gov. Bobby Jindal is launching a study committee on school safety, his administration is cutting a program that helps children with behavioral health problems.

The Early Childhood Supports and Services program will stop providing assessment, counseling and case management to young children in low-income families at the end of the month. The program employs 76 people, who will lose their positions.

The $2.8 million the program is slated to receive in federal funds over the next five months will be used elsewhere in the $25 billion state operating budget to supplant state dollars. Weak state tax collections, coupled with education expenses, forced the governor to trim the operating budget by $166 million.

Jindal did not agree to an interview on the issue. But he said in a prepared statement Monday that children with intensive needs can seek help from pediatricians, family resource centers or nonprofit groups.

“The 540 youth and families currently served through this program are being reviewed by DHH to determine their ongoing needs and identify resources for ongoing support,” Jindal said. DHH is the state Department of Health and Hospitals.

The Jindal administration contends the program was inefficient, and children can receive help in other ways. The program’s proponents said their concern is that the program’s demise will result in children receiving medication but not therapy or going on waiting lists.

“I’m just very concerned about where our priorities lie as a state,” said Janet Ketcham, executive director of the McMains Children’s Developmental Center in Baton Rouge.

The Early Childhood Supports and Services program serves Orleans, East Baton Rouge, Terrebonne, Lafayette, St. Tammany and Ouachita parishes. The program is for children under the age of 6 who are considered at-risk of developing social, emotional or developmental problems.

Ketcham wrote Jindal asking him to reconsider the program’s elimination. She said the program’s services are more critical than ever in light of the Connecticut school shootings.

Twenty children and six adults died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. Adam Lanza, who was believed to have mental health problems, allegedly shot and killed his mother before driving to the school and opening fire. Lanza later took his own life.

Last week, the governor formed a study committee to identify needed improvements at schools and colleges following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.

He formed the committee weeks after making the budget cuts.

Dr. Mary Margaret Gleason, co-clinical director of Early Childhood Support and Services, said the program helped families meet basic needs such as ensuring access to food and child care centers while also addressing mental health problems.

She said children routinely came to the program for help with aggressive behavior, anxiety issues or post traumatic stress disorder. The program offered assistance specific to their developmental problem, she said.

“What we know is that early childhood intervention ... can have long-lasting effects,” Gleason said.

Without that intervention, children likely will suffer, triggering long-term treatment costs, she said.

Ketcham said her disappointment in the governor’s decision is compounded by the fact that she was vying for a grant to collaborate with Early Childhood Support and Services to make it easier for parents to connect their children to speech therapists.

“Now I have to withdraw the grant,” she said.

State Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein said the program, which ends Feb. 1, was on the road map for elimination. The midyear budget cuts, he said, only accelerated the program’s demise. “It’s not necessarily the most efficient program,” he said.

Greenstein said children can receive help through the state’s mental health network, called Louisiana Behavioral Health Partnership.

He said Early Childhood Support and Services program costs, on average, $2,200 a year per child.

He said the Jindal administration is confident children can be treated for less money, although net savings have not been calculated.

“My interest is to be able to provide the services not just to six parishes but across the state,” Greenstein said.