Maybe you’ve heard about North Carolina’s mental-health crisis and are wondering who these children are that need state mental-health services. I’ll tell you: They are children of all ages and from all kinds of backgrounds. Let me share a few of their stories with you:
• 12-year-old Becky is a deeply loved child with a brain disorder that causes depression so profound she has attempted suicide several times.
• 5-year-old Peter is a foster child who was abused in his birth home and has now lived in six different foster homes. He suffers from crippling anxiety.
• 16-year-old Antoine was adopted out of foster care when he was 13. He is seething with rage and unable to trust or bond with his adoptive family.
All of these children are suffering, and all of them need intensive, individualized treatment. Without the care they need, they are statistically more likely to become part of our homeless or our prison population.
Not all such children are victims of abuse. Many of them have families just like yours and mine — families that love them and want them to have the very best chance of healing and having a better life.
Many of our children are disabled and qualify for Medicaid. Federal law says Medicaid children are entitled to have their emotional disorders treated. And North Carolina law says it’s the state’s obligation to treat mentally ill people, including children, in the least restrictive and most therapeutically appropriate setting and to maximize their qualify of life. That’s right: It’s the state’s obligation, not an option. The Division of Mental Health and its area programs (such as, locally, the Blue Ridge Center) are responsible for delivering mental-health care to our children.
Yet too often, when families try to access needed mental-health care for their severely emotionally disturbed children through their area programs, they are turned away. Many who are supposed to be served by the Blue Ridge Center have been told by their administrators that there is no money to develop services, or that allocated money is “stuck in Raleigh,” or that Blue Ridge simply does not have an interest in developing the needed services.
When I asked for crisis services for my child when she was suffering from an emotional breakdown, I was told that such services did not exist. I was advised that I would have to wait until my then-11-year-old was hurting herself — or attacking us — before I could get any help. At that point, I could call the police and have her handcuffed and driven (by patrol car) to the hospital for an evaluation. In effect, I was required to wait until my child was critically ill and then criminalize her mental-health crisis before my child would be eligible for any help.
Other families have endured similar experiences. Families seeking treatment for children who are sexually acting out or who have attachment problems have been offered appalling alternatives to the specialized care their children need. Some have been told to consider placing their child in group homes or in institutions — or giving the Department of Social Services custody of their children. In other words, families must literally give our children away and hope that their status as wards of the state will entitle them to the treatment they need.
North Carolinians would not tolerate a public-health system that would deny a child treatment for diabetes or cancer, or that would require parents to give their child away so that he or she child could receive treatment. Why, then, do we tolerate a mental-health system that denies children with emotional disorders needed care?
We can’t claim ignorance. State Auditor Ralph Campbell has documented the fact that our current mental-health system has failed our children. It is past time for us to call for a federal investigation into the N.C. Division of Mental Health and its area programs. It’s time for us to come together and stand up for some of North Carolina’s most vulnerable children — those with mental and emotional disorders.
For her advocacy on behalf of children with mental illness, Diane Bauknight received the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation Nancy Susan Reynolds Advocacy Award for 2002.