Monday, April 18, 2011

Sacramento Bee: Placer County Parents Fear Shift in Mental Health Service

Placer parents fret over shift in mental health services

Published: Monday, Apr. 18, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Sherry Manchester broke down and wept last Wednesday as she spoke about the upcoming changes at Sierra Vista School in Newcastle.

The Placer County Behavioral Health Department is pulling its staff from the school for emotionally disturbed children and turning control of the program over to the Placer County Office of Education.

Manchester is afraid her 14-year-old daughter won't receive the mental health services she needs.

Mental health care for special education students is changing throughout the state, as the responsibility shifts from counties to school districts.

In October then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $133 million for past mental health services, and he relieved counties of the responsibility of providing the services. The result has been months of confusion, as well as a flurry of lawsuits.

Disability Rights of California and the Placer County Education Support Network of Parents filed a complaint with the California Department of Education earlier this month. They say the decision to end the day treatment programs at Sierra Vista and Vista Creek schools violates federal law and threatens the welfare of their 50 students.

Manchester and other parents said they are worried their children will end up in Juvenile Hall if the program changes. "These kids are different," Manchester said. "You have no idea. If they aren't properly guided, properly nurtured – they are dangerous."

The Sierra Vista and Vista Creek parents learned of the plan to change the program in a Feb. 24 letter from Phillip Williams, assistant superintendent of the county Office of Education. It said a meeting to discuss each child's Individual Education Plan would be scheduled to "unbundle" the services being provided.

An Individual Education Plan is the legal contract between the parent and educators that dictate the type of education a child receives.

The letter also stated that the day program would be replaced with a program for students "identified as having an emotional disturbance."

Within days the Placer County Education Support Network of Parents – a support group for the schools' parents – turned into a grass-roots organization bent on keeping their children's programs intact.

Doug Manchester said acronyms in the letter and words like "unbundling" left parents confused. "No one could pin him down on it," said Manchester of a subsequent meeting with Williams.

But Placer County Superintendent of Schools Gayle Garbolino-Mojica said there is nothing to fear. "We are still providing mental health services to students who have an IEP that requires a mental health component," Garbolina-Mojica said. "There will be no break in services."

She said the Office of Education spends about $2.5 million a year on mental health services for the special education students in its district.

The new program that will be offered by the county Office of Education will be "as similar as possible, realizing we can't access the (state) reimbursement," she said.

She said the day treatment model is governed by rules set by the Department of Rehabilitation. The new program will follow California Department of Education guidelines.

Garbolina-Mojica couldn't explain "unbundling" but said the IEP meetings would "come up with goals and services to meet their needs."

Community activist David Gray isn't convinced. "Instead of writing the program to fit the IEPs, they are rewriting the IEPs to fit their program," Gray said.

Parents also are leery about staff changes. Half the personnel at the schools will change July 1, but all will have equivalent mental health training, Garbolina-Mojica said. "We're not pulling someone off the street who hasn't had any interaction with children with mental health issues."

The Manchesters and the others in the support group say their children's often-violent behavior has improved significantly since attending the specialized schools.

Sherry Manchester said her daughter had been hospitalized eight times in the last two years because they feared she would harm herself or someone else. She said the teenager now enjoys going to school.

Parents' fears are being echoed across the state as school districts begin to make changes to their mental health programs for special education students.

In Sacramento County, each Special Education Local Plan Area is currently funding its own mental health services. A SELPA is charged with providing special education services for all people up to age 22 within its districts.

The Sacramento Special Education SELPA, which includes 10 of the county's smaller districts, has agreed to pay the county to continue mental health services for its students through June when a new state budget is expected to kick in. "We felt it was important to continue our relationship (with county mental health)," said Judy Holsinger, executive director of the SELPA. "We didn't feel we had the personnel to pick up the services and we didn't feel it was fair to the kids."

San Juan Unified – which operates its own SELPA – is moving some students with mental health issues back into mainstream schools.

District spokesman Trent Allen said the primary reason is to put students with mental health issues in the least restrictive environment possible, as required by federal law. The transition does generate some savings, he said.

No one knows how much funding state legislators will agree to pay to provide these services next school year.

Holsinger said state funding for mental health – if approved in next year's budget – would go to counties, who would look at the needs and determine how much to give out. She said the funding would likely be only half the amount doled out in the past.

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