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Mental Health Advocacy Program for Kids: Helping Young People Go Places

Mental Health Advocacy Program for Kids: Helping Young People Go Places

May 9, 2018


By Marisol Garcia, Esq., Director/Managing Attorney,

Mental Health Advocacy Program for Kids, Health Law Advocates

On a spring day in 2017, elementary school staff called an ambulance to transport Ashley—a fourth grader experiencing an acute mental health crisis—to the emergency room. In the ambulance, Ashley hit an EMT in the face. As a result, charges were pressed against Ashley for assault and battery. Ashley’s mother was shocked when she received court documents instructing her that her nine year old daughter had a clerk’s magistrate hearing. Ashley would have to appear in court in a delinquency proceeding for behavior that happened while her family and providers were actively seeking treatment for her mental health needs.

Just like Ashley, many children involved in—or at risk of entering—the juvenile justice system end up there because of unmet mental health needs. Health Law Advocates’ Mental Health Advocacy Program for Kids (MHAP for Kids) has a proven track record of significantly improving the lives of these children and their families while also reducing unnecessary costs for the Commonwealth.

MHAP for Kids embeds staff attorneys in Family Resource Centers (FRCs) in Lowell, Lynn and Boston. The state created the statewide network of FRCs in 2012 with the goal of increasing children’s access to mental health care, special education and other services that play a significant role in diverting children from juvenile court. Our attorneys are trained in overcoming systemic barriers to mental health services by working with young people and their families to begin or improve special education services, secure and/or coordinate community-based mental health services, collaborate with the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Developmental Services, advocate for general education accommodations and assist with health insurance coverage.

MHAP for Kids serves young people and parents who have a “significantly elevated risk profile.” Of the children served:

  • 83% diagnosed with one or more mental illness (average of 3.5 mental health related conditions)
  • 89% experienced a barrier to mental health treatment
  • 63% accessed crisis or emergency mental health care services in the past year
  • 44% hospitalized for psychiatric care in the past year
  • 37% admitted to a residential mental health facility in the past year
  • 28% did not attend school at all or missed almost every day in the past three months
  • 61% missed school more than one day per week in the past three months

MHAP for Kids works. The Boston University School of Public Health conducted a two year study on the efficacy of MHAP for Kids. The study found that when MHAP for Kids intervenes in a child’s life, children experience:

  • Improved school attendance (31% missing more than one day per week, reduced to 6%)
  • Decreased use of emergency mental health services (70% with recent need, reduced to 24%)
  • Lowered use of overnight hospital stays (44% with recent need, reduced to 14%)
  • Reduced use of emergency shelters (10% with recent need, reduced to 0%)
  • Improved families’ self-reported mental health (children and parents/guardians), family conflict and family difficulties

In Ashley’s case, her therapeutic providers contacted the MHAP for Kids staff attorney immediately. The attorney felt strongly that Ashley was being punished for her unmet mental health needs. The attorney explained the entire juvenile court procedure to both Ashley and her mother so that they would know exactly what to expect. At the hearing, the attorney explained to the magistrate that Ashley is working with MHAP for Kids to get her the mental health treatment that she needs. The magistrate dismissed the charges. The MHAP for Kids attorney helped Ashley find placement in a therapeutic day school. Today Ashley is attending classes successfully and learning new coping skills.

MHAP for Kids is a lifeline – out of the juvenile justice system and into the treatment and care that creates brighter futures. As MHAP for Kids expands, it is our hope that one day soon, this program will be available to every Massachusetts child in need of its services and support.

This blog is part of HCFA’s Children’s Mental Health Week series.