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Hartford — Legislators and Newtown parents held a press conference Monday to announce a bill in the state Senate that focuses on preventing any more tragedies like the Sandy Hook killings through early intervention in mental health problems and engaging families in treatment.
“In one day all of the problems in our mental health system that I knew existed intellectually and that I had seen in my professional life manifested themselves in the most personal and tragic way,” said Nelba L. Marquez-Greene, licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of Newtown victim Ana Grace Marquez-Greene.
Marquez-Greene said she has spent the past five months grieving for her daughter and raising her son as well as meeting with mental health providers and parents who need services for their children.
“This is a moment to turn tragedy into transformation,” she said.
The bill serves as a complement to the gun control, mental health and school security bill that passed in early April, proponents said. It has support from leadership in both the House and the Senate and doesn’t have any costs associated with it at this time, they said.
The bill would require public and private agencies that deal with children’s mental heath issues and get state funding to adopt more early identification and intervention techniques; require schools, mental health care agencies and others to improve communication and coordination to quickly identify and refer children; and provide mental health services within the state’s Birth-to-Three developmental disabilities program.
It would also require that the proposed Office of Early Childhood coordinate a system of home visitation programs to vulnerable families. An example is Child First, which has a program in New London that conducts home-based visits for mothers before the birth of a child and on through the families of children up to age 6.
A mental health clinician and a care coordinator go to a home together and give the family a detailed assessment. They support the parents and help them find mental health services, said Dr. Darcy Lowell, executive director of Child First. Some children might be showing mental health problems such as aggressive or defiant behaviors while others might come from high-risk environments where a parent is depressed or there is domestic violence or substance abuse, Lowell said.
Child First is funded in part by the state through the Department of Children and Families, private donors and the federal Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. At this time the organization reaches about 700 children, but there are many thousands of children who need this support and are not getting it around the state, she said.
The bill also requires the state Department of Public Health to conduct a public information campaign on children’s emotional and behavioral health; requires the judicial branch to study whether children and young adults are being put in the corrections system instead of receiving treatment; and establishes a Children’s Mental Health Task Force to study the effects of nutrition, genetics, environmental toxins and psychotropic drugs on mental, emotional and behavioral health, according to the amendment.
State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, was one of the many supporters of the bill at the press conference and said she had contributed to proposing the Children’s Mental Health Task Force. Lead, cadmium and flame-retardants are examples of toxins that could affect a child’s mental health, Urban said.
The task force would also look at alternatives for treating children’s mental health issues such as acupuncture, she said.
A sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said the bill was personal for her because she watched her parents struggle to find mental heath services for a sibling who was the victim of a severe childhood trauma before her parents adopted the child at the age of 3½.
“As my mother has since described that time, getting involved in the system was like stepping into a foreign country without knowing the language or customs,” Bartolomeo said.
Another Newtown parent, Jen Maksel, whose son escaped Sandy Hook after watching his teacher and friends be murdered, said the bill was long overdue.
She said she struggled to get support for one of her other sons, who is 13 years old, and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, obsessive compulsive disorder, oppositional defiance disorder and explosive behavioral disorder.
“No parent should have to fight for a decade to get her son the medical care that he needs,” she said. “In fact, it was not until I testified here in Hartford in February that my son started getting the help he needed.”
Nelba concluded her speech by saying, “as a mental health professional and a mother who knows all too painfully the incredibly high cost of our broken mental health system, I strongly support this bill and urge the General Assembly to pass it without delay. We can’t afford to wait any longer.”