As leaders of organizations that serve children, youth and families who have come to the attention of child welfare, special education, juvenile justice and behavioral health systems, we have seen firsthand the successes and failures of the public agencies responsible for the care of California’s most vulnerable and at-risk children and youth.
There are, among other factors, three key challenges at the heart of our state’s struggle to provide the behavioral health services these kids need.
The first is silos. Because they are working in broken systems that are defined by complex administrative and funding barriers, well-meaning administrators make daily decisions that may hamper and even harm young people’s chances of returning to their families and communities, advancing their education and experiencing healthy development and well-being.
The second is access. Fewer than two in five children in California with identified mental health needs actually receive adequate services, despite the fact that 96 percent of children in the state now have insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act and state legislation that expanded Medicaid coverage to undocumented minors. Access to quality behavioral health support varies wildly from county to county, a product of the inherent diversity of resources among California’s regions and the decentralized system of program administration.
Finally, we must also reckon with the fact that black and Latino youth are still over-represented in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. This continues as a pox on our systems in spite of our growing understanding of implicit bias and racial disparities.
Our organizations, which serve the Bay Area and Los Angeles counties, have worked for decades across administrative and geographic divisions on behalf of children, youth and families. The systems serving children in our state simply have not been funded or structured to allow a coordinated approach that serves children in the context of their families and communities.
But here is the good news: Most of us working in these systems — nonprofit service providers, county agency staff, policymakers, health care providers and educators — generally agree that things are broken and we can and must do better for kids. If we can sustain and act from this consensus, powerful opportunities lie ahead.
The California Children’s Trust is a collaborative planning process designed to re-imagine the way we define, serve and invest in the social, emotional, developmental and behavioral health of all of California’s children and their families. By re-defining the scope and nature of behavioral health — and the procurement, financing, workforce and delivery systems behind it — we can nurture children’s social, emotional and developmental health from birth through young adulthood. In addition, we can also better engage and support their families and communities in the process.
The Trust seeks to capitalize on a unique confluence of opportunities: an emerging consensus, robust state revenues, a new state administration and the need to re-negotiate with the federal government the fundamental structure of our state’s Medicaid program. The goal is to conceive, fund, administer, measure and deliver a comprehensive system of support for children, youth and their families.
We are pleased to serve in leadership roles in the California Children’s Trust, and encourage anyone seeking to build a brighter future for California’s children and families to get involved. It will take all of us whose mission is to see a brighter and more equitable future for children, youth and families to make this dream a reality.
Join the California Children’s Trust, The Chronicle of Social Change and the Children’s Partnership at the LA84 Foundation in Los Angeles on Tuesday, September 25, to learn more about the current opportunities to transform children’s systems in California. You can RSVP here.
Christine Stoner-Mertz is president and CEO of Lincoln, which is based in Oakland. Debbie Manners, LCSW, is president and CEO of Hathaway-Sycamores of Pasadena, California.