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Lack of Behavioral Health Care for Young People Limiting State Progress

West Virginia is one of only a few states with rising levels of young people behind bars, and advocates say part of the issue is a lack of behavioral health care. (WV Virginia Center on Budget and Policy)
West Virginia is one of only a few states with rising levels of young people behind bars, and advocates say part of the issue is a lack of behavioral health care. (WV Virginia Center on Budget and Policy)
December 1, 2016

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – Lack of behavioral health care for children may be undermining West Virginia's efforts to reduce truancy, cut juvenile incarceration and improve foster care, advocates say.

They pointed to surveys showing that a much higher than average portion of state high school students complained of mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. And when those young people go untreated, they often end up in trouble, either with the schools or the justice system, said Kelli Caseman, co-founder and chair of Mental Health Matters West Virginia.

According to Caseman, the state is putting more effort into spotting young people in crisis.

"But once we identify that child who needs help, where do we send them?" Caseman asked. "Even in our metro areas like Charleston, kids are waiting up to two months to get into care.”

The number of young offenders behind bars has dropped sharply across the county. But West Virginia is one of the few states where the number has increased. During the legislative session, Caseman and others will be working with lawmakers trying to reduce it.

The Legislature has been looking at reforming West Virginia's juvenile justice system, reducing truancy, and improving foster care. Caseman said lawmakers are coming to see that investing in young people in crisis pays off in the long run.

"No, you're not going to really see a big financial change within the next two years,” she said. "But within maybe the next five or 10 years, you could be seeing a substantial change in the finance – and then, you're going to see a change in the kids."

Caseman said truancy often is the first sign of serious trouble. She said many young offenders can only get treatment while locked up, possibly after a wait of a year or more. Then when they get out, any treatment they had been receiving might just stop cold.

She described the care as so fragmented, it’s difficult to know where children are falling through the cracks.

"Currently, we don't even know where our major gaps are in care,” she said. "If we collectively don't know where those resources are, how can we go about helping kids?"

Caseman said one suggestion she plans to make to the Legislature is better data gathering and a global look at care across schools, communities and the justice system.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV