Five months after the Newtown massacre, the state Senate debated Thursday over a bipartisan bill designed to improve the emotional and mental health of children in an attempt to avoid another tragedy.
The measure is designed to detect behavioral problems at an early age and then begin early intervention to prevent the issues from worsening. Some supporters of the bill say that finding the proper care for children can be difficult in a long-running battle that often involves clashes with insurance companies and sometimes-slow diagnoses by pediatricians.
After a detailed debate that ended shortly before 5:30 p.m. Thursday, the measure was placed on the “consent” calendar and was later approved by 36 – 0.
“In a way, this bill should have been in front of this General Assembly many, many years ago,” said Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican. “It’s clearly a problem that needs to be dealt with as strongly as we possibly can. … I am absolutely convinced we could have headed off many serious problems, including maybe what happened in December 2012.”
The bipartisan bill states that the proposed Office of Early Childhood must coordinate a system of voluntary in-home-visitation programs that would be available to families with children who have severe depression, substance abuse challenges or special health care needs.
Sen. Toni Boucher, a Wilton Republican, said on the Senate floor Thursday that the weapons used in mass killings are often expensive and have been purchased by youths from upper-middle-class families. Many of the shootings “are not related to a poverty situation,” Boucher said.
Lawmakers said they wanted to remove the stigma and barriers that have blocked some children and youths from getting treatment. Legislators have been studying the issue of how to improve the mental health system since shooter Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six female educators at Sandy Hook on December 14 in a massacre that shocked the nation. The new bill is designed to complement the bipartisan gun-control measures that were passed and already signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“Timing is everything. The time is now for us to pass this legislation,” said Sen. Terry Gerratana, a New Britain Democrat who co-chairs the public health committee.
Sen. Dante Bartolomeo said on the Senate floor that parents are often the first ones to recognize that a child should be referred to the federal Birth to Three program.
“Parent intuition, I think, is sometimes taken for granted,” said Bartolomeo, a Meriden Democrat who was the bill’s chief sponsor. “Our pediatricians are not specialists.”
Bartolomeo said various sections of the bill had no state or municipal fiscal impact. A 10-member task force of volunteers would cost an estimated $1,000 to cover expenses, she said.
Senate Majority Leader Marty Looney said some professionals only treats youths aged 13 and older – thus initially missing the children who are having problems in kindergarten. “The most dramatic impact” can often come if the problems are caught early, Looney said.
Senate Republican leader John McKinney, who represents Newtown, said that the shootings in December had highlighted the problems with the state’s mental health system.
Jennifer Maksel, a Newtown mother, said recently that the bill is long overdue because she has been battling for the past 10 years to get proper care for her older son.
“My oldest son, who is almost 13, has struggled with mental health issues virtually his entire life,” she said recently. “He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and explosive behavioral disorder. I knew that something was wrong, and we needed help, when he was only two years old. Mothers know their children.”
When Maksel raised the issue about her son with the family’s pediatrician, she says that the doctor responded, “I hate behavior questions” and never mentioned a word about the national Birth to Three program that helps children. She says she finally learned about that program in 2003 when she moved to Maine. Now back in Connecticut, she has clashed with hospitals and insurance companies in the effort to help her son while on a tight family budget.
While the Sandy Hook massacre focused attention on Connecticut, statistics show that mental health is a growing national issue. A recent report that was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that as many as 20 percent of American children have a mental health disorder annually — translating into an estimated 7 million to 12 million children. The new report came out just weeks before President Barack Obama intends to hold a mental health summit at the White House on June 3 that was prompted by Newtown and other recent gun violence.