Manatee's mental health safety net for youth invaluable

July 21, 2013 

Historically, Manatee Glens has been an invaluable asset to this community as the primary mental health caregiver for children and adults with behavioral, addiction and other issues. This year, the state of Florida recognized some of the ground-breaking work performed here.

The Manatee Glens Children's Community Action Team found great success in providing intensive treatment and mentoring to emotionally troubled children in the comfort of their homes. A team of counselors, a psychiatrist, nurse, therapist, case managers and mentors are available around the clock.

The state launched Manatee's pilot program in 2005 but quit funding CAT in 2009. Fortunately for this community's children and parents, Manatee County provided 90 percent of the program's annual costs of $792,000.

Perhaps as a reaction to December's Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy and the resulting national debate over mental health care, Florida lawmakers saw the light. This year, the Legislature finally took notice of CAT's success and allocated almost $7 million to fund CAT programs in 10 communities beginning this summer.

Florida has a notorious reputation as stingy in funding mental health programs. Only Texas ranks worst, according to 2012 figures. Overall this year, Florida merely maintained the status quo for many mental health programs.

After years of cutting funds for mental health, this newfound embrace of a years-old pilot program comes as somewhat of a surprise. Florida lawmakers accepted a simple fact: Manatee's CAT program has proven the cost of in-home care is far cheaper than institutionalization.

In a legislative hearing on CAT in March, Manatee Glens chief executive and president Mary Ruiz cast the expense difference in stark terms: $67.50 per day per child in the CAT program versus as much as $350 per day in residential treatment.

CAT was designed to be a statewide solution to the escalating costs of juvenile justice, residential treatment and foster care of seriously emotionally disturbed children.

The state lacked an intensive treatment alternative so parents could avoid giving up their children to a state-funded institution.

The financial impact pales in comparison with the human one. A Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau report last week introduced Bradenton teenager Chloe Ostenson, suicidal at age 12 after the death of her father and the victim of bullying in middle school.

Her mother, Karen Lynch, had Chloe committed under the Baker Act twice out of fear for her life, and the crisis unit at Manatee Glens' hospital referred the family to the Children's Community Action Team.

In one year, Chloe's life changed dramatically. Now an A student, she says she "feels like I can accomplish anything."

The 13-year-old also stated: "I'm not that desperate kid in need anymore. I'm not afraid to say who I am."

Thanks to CAT's safety net, Chloe has a bright future.

The penny-wise, pound-foolish Legislature should realize the total value of mental health care. Committee meetings begin in mere weeks in preparation for the March 2014 regular session. Fiscally prudent programs like CAT should be at a high priority.

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