Children’s Council co-chairs praise expansion of school lunch programs and children’s mental health care

Children’s Council co-chairs praise expansion of school lunch programs and children’s mental health care

HARTFORD — As a social worker and former CEO of several nonprofits, legislative newcomer state Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wildon, said she could help by serving on the Children’s Committee Serve to provide the most insight and guidance. This opportunity came to her last year when she was appointed co-chair.

Of the 24 bills passed out of committee in 2023, Maher highlighted children’s mental health measures as groundbreaking. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, addresses issues related to mental health access and education and establishes the Office of the Behavioral Health Advocate, which is expected to be appointed later this year.

“We have a health care advocate, but there was and is a growing need for behavioral health advocates in the state. As the pandemic has unfolded, that need has become even greater,” Maher told the CT Examiner this week .

She said the law provides schools with more funding for mental health care, especially for at-risk youth experiencing depression, substance abuse, anxiety, trauma and conflict-related stress.

“There will be a patient navigator within the Office of Behavioral Health,” said Maher, who co-chairs the Children’s Committee with Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “The patient navigator will work through the system and figure out how to best access care.”

She noted that a common barrier has to do with insurance and covering (or not covering) such care.

“Many mental health providers are not paid through insurance,” she said. “Insurance companies often deny mental health services to families or children. Patient navigators can work with families and providers to ensure insurance coverage is available when possible.”

Insurance may not be guaranteed, but a patient navigator is an additional tool, she said.

Maher said she plans to monitor progress on the law’s implementation this year and provide input if needed.

Maher delved into other topics such as the expansion of the state’s free school meals program and the commission’s potential role in addressing abuse at Harvington Youth Home.

Bridge Family Center in Harwinton is one of seven short-term assessment and respite (or STAR) homes in the state. They are small residential facilities that house troubled teenage girls, including victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking. But at a hearing last year, the state Department of Children and Families confirmed multiple cases of domestic sexual and physical abuse that had occurred over the past several years. Last year, a former teenage resident also filed a lawsuit claiming he was physically assaulted and sexually abused.

“We are having conversations in committee. We have not reached any conclusions yet,” Maher said of the case, without elaborating further.

Regarding free school lunches, Maher said she was pleased when Lamont and Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker announced plans in August to expand the program to all students in the 2023-24 school year. Under the plan, $16 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds will be invested in the program.

Maher said it is critical that the governor approves plans for the 2024-25 school year now.

“This is about making sure children are fed in school because we know that takes a huge burden off families who use schools,” she said. “It also breaks down the stigma and bullying that happens when children have to get free or reduced meals.”

About 114 school districts participating in the school breakfast program are eligible for funding, serving an estimated 177,243 eligible students, according to the state. There are 13,197 eligible students in the lunch program.

On other issues, Maher said she favors regulating summer camps and establishing a mechanism for reporting any complaints.

“We’re looking at, for example, if someone is injured at a camp, how do we get that information out?” she said.

Maher also said she wants to update language regarding children in Connecticut General Statute 17a-3, which addresses DCF’s powers and duties.

“We are looking at how we can update the language to better reflect the work currently being done,” she said. “Our attitudes and understanding of children – who they are, how they interact and what their needs are – have changed significantly since 1975.”

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