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Children with mental illnesses struggle to find help as schools, hospital systems are decentralized

Elizabeth Marcell, executive director of intervention services at ReNEW Schools, works with a student in the charter network's therapeutic program.

Sarah Carr / The Hechinger Report

Elizabeth Marcell, executive director of intervention services at ReNEW Schools, works with a student in the charter network's therapeutic program.

New Orleans has become a case study in how children and families are affected by decentralization of public education and mental health systems. The problem is particularly urgent because more schoolchildren suffer from mental health issues here than in other parts of the country.


One New Orleans 15-year-old with explosive disorder felt abandoned after the only therapist she trusted left town. A 14-year-old diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, who became suicidal and threatened others, had to travel 300 miles to get admitted to a hospital. A 6-year-old with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder was told he couldn’t come back to his public school until his mother found mental health care services for him.

In recent years, New Orleans has become a case study in how children and families are affected by rapid decentralization of public education and mental health systems.

In theory, the city’s families should have more options than ever when it comes to schools and mental health providers. But decentralization has wrought some unintended consequences, particularly for children with the most severe needs, whose needs aren’t always met by private operators.

The problem is particularly urgent in New Orleans, where more schoolchildren suffer from mental health issues than in other parts of the country.

A 2010 report by the Children’s Health Fund and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that children displaced by Hurricane Katrina were 4.5 times more likely to have symptoms of a serious emotional disturbance than a group of demographically comparable children in a national survey.

Moreover, surveys of public school children in the city have found that between 40 and 60 percent qualify for trauma counseling, said Doug Walker, the clinical director at Mercy Family Center, which provides extensive mental health services for New Orleans children.

In New Orleans, decentralization of public services has affected children with mental health needs in three major ways.

First, Gov. Bobby Jindal has privatized or closed several hospitals, leading to an acute shortage of beds for children who require overnight stays for mental health crises. At the same time, the state has widened the pool of low-income children who are eligible for community-based mental health care, as well as the number of private operators eligible to serve them. The result is a landscape where quality varies tremendously and turnover for operators and staff can be high.

Meanwhile, the independently operated charter schools that have opened since Hurricane Katrina have no central office to rely on for social and counseling services. Because they are judged almost solely on test scores, some schools have neglected mental health and counseling.

“Decentralization does allow for more innovation,” said Paulette Carter, the president of the Children’s Bureau of New Orleans, which works to make mental health services accessible to families and schools. “Now it’s just a matter of how to get that done.”

No vacancy

The gaps in service are most egregious for children with severe needs who routinely require hospital care.

Janice Willis has had to bring her nephew, a 14-year-old diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, to the hospital more times than she can recall. He acts out in ways dangerous to himself and others, including “tearing things up,” threatening people and walking out of school.

But they “don’t keep him long enough to evaluate him,” said Willis. Doctors might give her nephew a shot to calm him down and then release him after a day of observation.

“If he’s just there for one day, he will come back exactly the way he was,” she said. Doctors have sent the teen to out-of-town hospitals twice — in Monroe and Shreveport — because of a shortage of beds for youth in the New Orleans region. The out-of-town hospitals, at least, kept her nephew for several days, Willis said.

There are actually more hospital beds in the New Orleans area for children and teens experiencing mental health crises than there were before Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, there were 76 beds. That dropped to 55 by 2009, but it  rose to 83 in 2013.

But the number where children can stay longer than one to three days has dropped precipitously. Local hospitals that admit children and adolescents experiencing mental health crises try to stabilize them with medications (to stop psychotic episodes, for instance) and usually release them.

“There are no [public] residential or therapeutic group homes left in the city,” Carter said. The New Orleans Adolescent Hospital had some long-term beds available before it closed in 2009; Hope Haven, a social-service organization run by Catholic Charities, shut down its residential psychiatric facility for children in 2008.

Partly as a result of these closures, New Orleans youth are often sent to Shreveport, Monroe, or Alexandria for hospitalization, a forced deportation even for young children. This can be particularly traumatic for low-income families that can’t afford to visit.

In one case, a suicidal first-grader wound up in Shreveport because there were no beds in New Orleans, according to a social worker. The child was transported by ambulance, but the mother didn’t have a car and couldn’t visit her son.

Joe Smith, the chef at Cafe Reconcile, which trains youth for the restaurant industry, said his daughter was sent to a hospital in Alexandria two years ago because there was no room in local hospitals.

His daughter suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that led her, at different times, to act out and retreat from her peers in panic. Some days, she snuck a knife into school with her out of fear. Other days, she tapped her feet incessantly in class, prompting confrontations with school staff.

Although the distance made visits difficult, the Alexandria hospital held Smith’s daughter, a pre-teen at the time, for several days. That gave doctors time to diagnose her with explosive disorder, which made it easier to find appropriate mental health services once she returned to New Orleans, Smith said.

He believes the scarcity and complexity of mental health services for adolescents contributes directly to New Orleans’ high rate of gun violence.

“If a kid slips through the cracks, once that kid gets out on the street … there are people there who know how to use his mental illness for their own purposes,” he said. “‘’He got an anger issue? We can use him as an enforcer. He wild and crazy? That means people will be scared of him.’”

“When one of them hurts or kills somebody, it’s too late.”

Navigating a maze-like system

There are plenty of mental-health providers in New Orleans for children who aren’t in crisis, but they can be difficult to find and assess. For instance, two years ago, the state stopped providing some mental-health services directly — eliminating a state-funded program for children up to five years old. Instead, virtually any private provider can now get reimbursed through Medicaid for child and adolescent therapy.

That has opened up new treatment opportunities — particularly for children with less severe mental health challenges. They often were shut out entirely under the old model in which grants and state government provided most of the funding.

“Access to services has increased,” said Doug Walker at Mercy Family Center, noting that most children on Medicaid qualify for up to 24 therapy sessions.

But there are still complications — including some new ones.

Not all psychiatrists and psychologists will take Medicaid clients; others cap how many they’ll treat. Carter said she recently tried to locate a psychiatrist for a child and couldn’t find a single opening in the city for young Medicaid clients in the city.

The state “wants us to run everything on Medicaid dollars alone,” she said. At the same time, it’s become harder for psychologists to get reimbursed for certain services, particularly diagnostics and testing.

“They’ve whittled us down to where we are not able to do testing,” said Walker. “We’re sending kids to psychiatrists without fully knowing what the deal is.”

In a recent case, Walker and his colleagues wanted to perform IQ and other tests to see if a child was mentally retarded, but they couldn’t get authorization. They were told testing should be handled by the school. Many schools, in turn, defer to community-based mental health professionals for diagnoses.

Meanwhile, the fee-based model has long led some community-based operators to sacrifice quality for quantity.

“If they don’t see the kids, they don’t get paid. It can lead to overbooking because you know some clients are not going to show.” Overbooking, and the routine stress of the job, lead to high attrition.

Some of the mental health providers are “great” while others are “hiring anybody,” said Shayne Latter, the director of student services at Communities in Schools, which provides social work and other family support services to the schools. “It’s almost like anybody can open up” a mental-health provider.

Overwhelmed families often struggle to distinguish between the great and the shoddy providers, turning to school counselors or whomever else they can find for advice. “If they don’t get a referral from someone they trust, they are kind of lost,” said Penny Conner, a social worker at Lafayette Academy Charter School.

The Metropolitan Human Services District, a government agency that coordinates a range of services related to mental health, has tried to assist with referrals and fill any voids in care, said Michael Smith, the director of child and youth services.

“We are trying to act as a single point of entry” into the system, said Smith, who noted that any family can call his agency and get help finding treatment. “The key is getting the child to the right level of care.”

While his agency has simplified the process for many families, Smith said the next step is to determine which private providers offer the best care. “We don’t have a barometer on how effective we’ve been with all the services that are out there,” he said.

Even with help, stressed-out families can find it hard to find the right treatment for their children. Willis said her nephew sees a psychiatrist just once a month. She’d like to put him in group therapy so the teenager could talk to kids who are facing similar challenges. She’s not sure whether those programs exist or how to find them.

Smith’s daughter sees a psychiatrist once a month, primarily to get prescriptions for her medication. The 15-year-old had been seeing a therapist more often, but the woman moved away.

“That can be devastating when you put your trust in that person and they up and leave,” Smith said. “Now she feels abandoned … She needs to be seeing a therapist on a more regular basis.”

Tragically, many youth don’t get comprehensive mental health services until they enter the foster care or juvenile justice systems, Smith said. His daughter recently wound up in juvenile court for trying to crash the computer system at her school. The silver lining is that she now seems to be eligible for more help.

“Free mental health services are few and far between if you aren’t in the court system,” Smith said.

Bounced from school to school

In the schools, too, families often encounter uneven quality in mental health services — and an uneven willingness to work with challenging students.

Prior to Katrina, “we can argue whether OPSB [the Orleans Parish School Board] did a good job, but at least it had a central office responsible for the mental health of children,” Carter said. Now “some charters put a lot of resources into socio-emotional health. Some don’t put any resources into that area.”

In 2007, school administrators told Willis that her nephew could not return to Murray Henderson Elementary School on the West Bank until she got him diagnosed and treated for his strange behaviors. The child, seven at the time, would bark like a dog, crawl on the floor and curse at his principal.

Willis agreed to withdraw her nephew. After he was forced out of a second school, she found a spot for him at SciTech Academy. Initially, the school suspended the child frequently, but over time he connected with one of his teachers in a therapeutic program that the school’s charter operator, ReNEW Schools, started for children with severe emotional disorders.

In recent years, the Recovery School District, which operates most of the city’s public schools, has tightened up admissions and expulsions processes across its schools, partly in an effort to make it harder for schools to force challenging students to withdraw. But some schools still stumble.

Last October, administrators at Encore Academy asked Anisha Gallin to keep her 6-year-old son, diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, at home, the mother said. The child had been suspended several times for dramatic mood swings, getting physical with staff and classmates, and running around uncontrollably.

In a letter, the school counselor said the student would be “restricted from coming to school until a proper evaluation can be done and documentation can be given to the school with detail about outside mental health services being provided for him.”

After a month, Gallin found a psychiatrist for her son and he returned to school. But staff continued to suspend him for unruly behavior, and Gallin has since pulled the child out of school. “I feel they just don’t want to deal with him,” she said.

Terri Smith, the school’s principal and CEO, said she could not discuss the case in detail. But she said that asking a child with a possible mental health disorder to stay away from school is not standard practice at Encore. “We pride ourselves in putting a lot of time and energy with families who are having a difficult time,” she said.

It’s a violation of federal special-education laws for schools to ban children due to their disabilities. If a child is suspected of having a disability, including an emotional or behavioral disorder like ADHD, the school must evaluate the child and put him on an individual education plan. Smith said she believes the school had a plan in place for Gallin’s son.

Some charters, like ReNEW, use the autonomy they’re afforded to devote extra resources to mental health. At other charters, the focus on academics has led them to pressure even Communities in Schools workers to stray from their mission of providing social support like counseling and coordinating homeless services.

Sara Massey, president of the organization, says they sometimes have to remind schools that “we don’t do lunchroom duty, we don’t do testing, we don’t do homework duty.”

Meanwhile, efforts to create special programs like ReNEW’s — or even entire schools for children with severe mental or behavioral health needs — have been divisive.

“It gives people excuses not to accept kids,” said Margaret Lang, the former director of intervention services for the Recovery School District. “They can say, ‘Oh, they do that over there.’ It’s keeping us a segregated community.”

But parents like Smith, whose children have been shuffled from school to school, say they would welcome a specialized program that would keep them from dealing with a confusing system of school and mental health services.

Smith and Willis said they have considered sending their children to Texas or Mississippi, where they have been told there are public schools devoted to children with mental illness and more extensive residential services.

“If I could afford it, I would probably relocate my family,” said Smith. “In this city, we need to stop with this state of denial that we don’t need more mental health services.”

Lens staff writer Jessica Williams contributed to this report.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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  • Lee Barrios

    Thank you Sarah for bringing this problem into the light of day. Our traditional public school system has been addressing the needs of these children for years (by law!) but without adequate funding from the state. The public needs to realize that serving these needs is a benefit to EVERYONE in their communities. These children come from families at all socio-economic levels and when their children are served properly in the public schools and are able to be included with their peers and achieve academic success it is a win win situation. St. Tammany schools strive to provide adequate services but some school systems just can’t afford it. Granted, schools are not a replacement for appropriate medical and mental health services but when schools and community services work together both can accomplish their separate goals. I would add that the extreme cases you site are only the tip of the iceberg. Many children who suffer from personal trauma, family dysfunction and lesser disabilities can experience academic failure when an appropriate level of intervention could change the trajectory of their lives. Charters receive the same state/federal funding for these services that traditional public schools do often with access to even more private and grant awards but their desired “autonomy” can present problems of capacity and their need to be “managed” by companies who must be paid a percentage of their funding. I would have liked you to have included an update on the lawsuit filed regarding the failure of the RSD to serve some of these children. You did mention the problem that schools face with their evaluations, and often funding, being dependent on school performance scores. The Spector of high stakes tests being misused since the failed policies of NCLB twenty or so years ago is ominous. We must stop using these tests punitively and return to using tests appropriately as diagnostic toole to improve the delivery f educational services. What if health insurance companies or doctors used your physical or mental illnesses or injuries to punish you with higher fees? Oh! I guess they do!

  • nickelndime

    Well said, Lee Barrios. In fact, I like what you wrote better. Also, is “explosive disorder” in the DSM? (That’s a Carr question, since it was referenced in the story that, after a stay of a couple of days, the child was diagnosed with explosive disorder.)

  • jazz_nola

    It is baffling to me the statement made by the official from the Children’s Bureau regarding the decentralization of the school system where there is no central office and that many schools don’t have social services. Mrs. Carter responded by saying that “Decentralization does allow for more innovation………..now it’s just a matter of how to get that done.” How does allowing for “innovation” justify not providing services to children? Does that mean that it’s OK for the charter schools to not provide counseling and social services like every other public school in Louisiana despite the NEED and they received the same funds that every other public school? So they pocket the funds and don’t provide such a needed service. This innovation talk is CRAP…..meanwhile most of these charter schools are either rated D or F schools. It appears that providing quality education to its students is not the agenda in this many of these charter schools that have to allow “innovation” while ignoring the needs of hundreds of students in New Orleans

  • nickelndime

    I agree, jazz_nola. You raised a number of valid points. The freedom to be innovative does not give any public school, including charter schools, the freedom to NOT provide a free and appropriate education (FAPE), either for the students enrolled at the school or the students who seek entrance into the school. The charter schools should answer to (be held accountable) to their charter authorizers. In the case of ENCORE, it is the OPSB. The staff point persons are Kathleen Padian, Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools, and Dr. Rosalynne Dennis, Director of Special Education. OMGAWD ! What am I saying? That would mean these people would actually have to do their job and also answer to someone. Hold on! My chair is beginning to rock!

  • Tracie Washington

    In 2007 Louisiana Justice Institute helped organize and galvanize parents and former OPSB Special Education teachers in a series of forums on the neglect by the Recovery School District’s direct run AND chartered schools, in providing services for children with special needs. We knew this was not an OPSB problem; in fact, I was desperately trying to put children with special needs BACK INTO schools governed by OPSB, because Dr. Dennis would insure these kids were serviced (Kathy Padian had not yet moved into OPSB). Unfortunately Lee, in this state’s zeal to remove all schools from governance by the OPSB, the children with special needs were disregarded. What’s curious to me is that all these folks — INCLUDING THE LEADERS OF RENEW SCHOOLS — have suddenly found they have a problem. No, you don’t get to claim messiah now, after years of trying desperately NOT to enroll these kids in your schools, only to find you can’t and need to provide services. It’s just crazy that these jokers are crying “We need more resources.” Really?! You weren’t crying poverty when you were “dumping” these kids at King School. Folks, we have to wake up, stop shuffling the chairs on the deck of these flailing ships. Can we please have our experienced educators back? Please?

  • nickelndime

    I was trying not to speak negatively of ReNEW as it is being presented in this report/article, but it’s very difficult to say anything nice about this charter network. What really, and I do mean really, “gets my goat” (Ha!) is that these people like to break things, ask for enormous and obscene amounts of public money to fix that which they have now declared broken, apply a couple of cheap band-aid approaches, and then pat themselves on the back for fixing/breaking the stuff again, in what amounts to a circuitous cycle (Ha! again) of break and fix. Now, I agree with almost everything that Tracie Washington has said, and she has said it well. However, I do not believe that either Padian or Dennis are effectively doing their jobs, especially when it comes to the charters, but Dennis is probably doing a better job in Orleans Parish than the RSD and the likes of ReNEW are doing for the students in New Orleans. Experienced, licensed, certified, PRAXIS-tested “teachers” are not valued today. But that could change if Jindal blows a big hole in the State BESE, the RSD and its favored nonprofits, and the LDOE.

  • http://www.brottworks.com/ Andy Brott

    CONNECT THE DOTS!!!! We have the highest incarceration rates in the word, and this is example A1 on how to stay that way. Solutions?
    I’m no expert, + my wife of 21 years and I don’t have kids, so…
    But we did learn by doing and helping @risk kids in the the mid 90′s when we moved here from the Upper Midwest (strike # 2?)…
    One of them grew up and into successful Navy career, but as he later told me; his life was saved and turned around by the help he received from mental health care pros. and to get those we had to take time off work, cut red tape, and demand he got it.
    $ VERY WELL SPENT.
    Some (most?) of his other friends/peers not so lucky…
    $ WASTED and badly invested…
    Today? Money wasted big time!!!! worse than a firefighters golf course….
    Mental health care (trauma counselling) needs to be sold to the public for what it is; a spectacular return on investment (ROI), and needs to be marketed as such, so the public demands it in EVERY CHARTER!!! as money well spent, like changing your oil for your car.
    Screaming cream criminal justice reform and racism, without solutions won’t fix our dysfunction.

    Nor will chanting- Charter… Charter.. -no more Elliose Brooks Sims, Hydels (SP?) and Jefferson Machine!!! They are a business, and will try to manage cost based on short term profits- they have and will want to skip this- Don’t change your oil, buy a new car…
    Connect the dots- it’s the ROI that can fix us!!!! my opinion…
    And it takes data like this, so BIG THANKS to http://hechingerreport.org/ , The Lens, and Jessica Williams.

    Other solutions?
    Best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott