TALLAHASSEE -- A team approach to helping severely emotionally disturbed children that has been serving families in Bradenton since 2005 could be considered a model statewide and deserves funding, a House subcommittee heard Wednesday.
Mary Ruiz, president and CEO of Manatee Glens, the largest provider of mental health and addiction services in the county, said she felt "encouraged" by the prospect of expanding Manatee Glens' Community Action Team or CAT after making a presentation to the Florida House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee at the Capital.
Hit by hard budget cuts, the state stopped funding CAT in 2009, but Manatee County picked up about 90 percent of the funding for the team, with an average annual budget of $792,388, Ruiz said, adding the team spends $67.50 per day, per child compared to as much as $350 a day at residential treatment programs.
Committee Chair Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said he wanted the subcommittee members "to be fully informed of how this program works. We'll roll out a budget next week and see what type of resources we have to apply to all sectors of the budget."
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The state originally set up CAT as a pilot program to enable parents and caregivers to care for severely emotionally ill children at home by offering a team approach, what Ruiz calls a "hospital without wheels" that offers counselors on 24-hour call, availability of daily services in home or in school, an integrated team of experts, coaching for parents, family support for parents and siblings and other services.
"Why do we need a CAT team?" Ruiz asked during her presentation. "Florida parents are home alone with seriously emotionally disturbed kids. The crisis outpatient system that we have for children's mental health in Florida is very sturdy but it was not designed for kids this sick.
"So what happens is that they cycle through the crisis centers, they make extraordinary demands on outpatient (care) and what our child psychiatrists feel is that they are not serving these kids in the traditional outpatient setting. Meanwhile parents are getting more and more desperate."
Ruiz said parents want to keep their children in the home, but "they're losing the courage to raise them."
Hudson asked Ruiz, "How might this model help with some of the recent tragedies resulting in terms of mental health disorders," such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"What happens with serious emotional disturbance that's undetected and untreated is that it gets worse and worse and worse and children get older and older ... So we are a ticking time bomb."
Ruiz said 3 percent of young Floridians have mental challenges so severe they're not functioning at home, school or in the community.
Florida's budget for mental health spending is 49th in the country, but almost half of behavioral health is spent on institutions -- "no other state equals this amount," Ruiz said.
A team approach works to help all members of the family and is cost-effective, she told the legislative panel. "It's rare to have something that works for kids, families and taxpayers."