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Senators introduce bill to improve access to mental health services for children in foster care

May 13, 2020

During National Foster Care Month, U.S. Senators Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Bob Casey (Pa.), and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) May 7 announced that they have introduced legislation to improve access to mental health services for children in the foster care system.

Their bipartisan Timely Mental Health for Foster Youth Act would require states to provide an initial mental health screening to foster children within 30 days of entry into care. If a mental health issue is identified in the initial screening, states would be required to provide a comprehensive health assessment within 60 days.

“Children in foster care are at increased risk for mental or behavioral health issues, like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, which could affect them well into adulthood,” said Blunt. “As co-chair of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, one of my main focuses has been recognizing the unique health challenges foster kids face and looking at ways we can make sure they have access to the services they need. This legislation will help ensure foster children receive a mental and behavioral health screening quickly, and that any additional care they need follows soon after.”

“The trauma and challenges that children face before entering the foster care system, and throughout their time in it, put them at high risk of mental health struggles. Our bill will help identify their unique needs, and provide care to the 400,000-plus children in foster care that will improve their lives and mental well being,” said Boozman.

“We must do everything we can to support young people who are facing mental health challenges. The Timely Mental Health for Foster Youth Act will provide a clear road map to swiftly assess and begin to address the mental health needs of children in foster care so we can positively change the trajectories of young lives. Establishing mental health supports earlier in a child’s life will set them on a path to success,” said Casey. “This bipartisan legislation is a step towards giving all children a fair opportunity in life.”

“I am committed to making sure children in foster care have access to the services they need, including behavioral health screenings. This new bill will expand our mental health services for foster youth and improve their care as they grow into adulthood,” said Stabenow, co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth."

Synergy Services is grateful to Senators Blunt, Boozman, Casey, and Stabenow for their proactive efforts to create better outcomes for children and youth in foster care,” said Gwen O'Brien, Director of Advocacy and Prevention, Synergy Services. “Timely access to mental health assessments and comprehensive treatment services are critical to the health and well-being of this most vulnerable population. Children and youth who enter into foster care systems across this county have been exposed to a number of different adverse childhood experiences that can result in a variety of negative health outcomes well into adulthood. Timely mental health assessment and treatment can change the trajectory of a child's life and lead them on a path towards healing and resilience."

According to a 2015 Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General report, children in foster care experience a high rate of chronic medical, developmental, and mental health issues. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 places specific requirements on state child welfare agencies to meet the health care needs of children and youth in foster care, including creation of a health care plan. This plan must be developed jointly with state Medicaid agencies and provide for ongoing oversight and coordination of health care services, including a schedule for screenings and assessments. Notably, the law does not specify required timeframes for performance of these services.

Currently, 38 states require a behavioral health screening for foster youth but timeframes vary, with only 11 states requiring the screening to occur within 30 days. The Timely Mental Health for Foster Youth Act would create a national standard to ensure foster children have access to mental health screenings and follow-up assessments so they can get the care they need more quickly.

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