Research Conference Addresses Children's Mental Health in Real Time

03/05/10 Dawn Elliott
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The University of South Florida is hosting the 23rd Annual Children’s Mental Health Research and Policy Conference next week in downtown Tampa. WMNF recently spoke with one of the conferences organizers, Dr. Mario Hernandez, about how the research addressed in the conference trickles out of academia into the practical world.

These are the kids that end up in juvenile hall, they bounce around foster homes, using the ‘F’ word, cussing you out, attempt suicide, depressed, not like to sit still in the classroom. These are the kids that cost the most.

Mario Hernandez is Professor and Chair of the Department of Child and Family Studies at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida. He described how in years past, children with mental and behavioral issues were sent away to residential facilities far from home, oftentimes to live out their entire youths.

There were so many children who were removed from their communities and placed in residential treatments, some as far away as other states, and they were left there unclaimed. No one rarely checked on you. And not only was that a terrible thing for children, those kids come out completely unprepared to live with their families again or to live in the community because they haven’t been socialized that way. But it was costing a fortune to do the wrong things for kids.

Hernandez cited books that have laid the groundwork for the childhood mental health movement. Among them are Unclaimed Children by the late Dr. Jane Knitzer, and A System of Care for Children and Youth with Severe Emotional Disturbances, written by Drs. Beth Stroul and Gary Blau, the latter of which is a presenter at the conference next week. Both books address a needed system of care within a community, with separate parts working together for the good of the child and family.

The idea around that has been my whole life’s work, is to get local communities to collaborate across sectors, such as child welfare, juvenile justice, the schools, in such a way that our most vulnerable kids and their families, they see a seamless system.

The idea of a seamless system lead to what’s now referred to as the wraparound approach.

What we do is look at all the things a kid needs to stay at home and classroom. We have a fantastic program called Success for Kids in Hillsborough County that demonstrates that approach. The innovation is typically in mental health, we have identified patients, and here we don't even use that term ‘patient’. We think about the whole context, families needs. Create service plans for all those needs. And we create service plans based on those needs.

The research leads to discovering what may or may not work for a family or community.

There’s a lot of research to understand systems and how they work or don’t work in the service of kids and family, and there’s research to try to figure out when we do know that a kid has a problem, how do we give them the best service, then the third part is how to they hang together, so that it’s not an accident that the kid gets a service, or if a kid needs more than one service, who’s coordinating that?

Research does not always offer easy solutions, nor is every solution born from research.

There's a huge research-to-practice gap. They'll say sometimes is that it takes innovations sometimes 17 years before it's even adopted at the community level. A lot of the reasons for that is that it's not always conducted in the real world, so it's much harder to figure out how to make it stick in the real world. Wraparound and these services didn't come out of research. It came out of common sense, and then researchers started testing it.

As Hernandez said, these are the most expensive children in the system, but he says there are more expensive costs when their needs go unmet.

If you look at the costs of this, it's minuscule compared to what it would cost to put these kids in jail, which is an issue now in Florida, and to put them in residential, where they might stay until they're 22 years old. Some people say I can't believe you're giving kids this stuff. It's smart it's common sense, it's what works. This conference is the research arm of everything I just described to you.

A lot of these things boil down to policy, federal policies, state policies, what is paid for, and how these things have to be transformed in order to support the kind of common sense ideas that I shared with you.

For parents who have troubled children, Hernandez says the best first step to finding the right resources.

Sometimes resources are the issue because insurance may not cover some of them and they may have to pay out of pocket expenses. Call your local Federation of Families chapter, find out from them resources and places. Call the Children’s Board, we make a lot of referrals to Success for Kids, places that will work with you holistically, that will truly access your child and your family’s strengths across a variety of life domains. Meet with teachers, meet with probation people, go with you to court. You want to find that, you want that.

One current children’s mental health issue comes in the form of state Senate Bill 2718, which would increase the monitoring of psychotropic drug use of children in the foster care system. The bill was filed last month by Ronda Storms.

You know, we’ve got to get beyond giving someone medication and just having a doctor say, “How’s it going? How do you feel?” We’ve got to get a little better than that. It’s one of those areas that can be abused or could be a fantastic help. That’s at the very heart of the kind of problems this conference is all about trying to figure out things like this.

Resources: Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic & Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment

Children’s Board of Hillsborough County

Success for Kids & Families

National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health

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