Bill Would Require Mental Health Assessments For Schoolchildren
Measure Runs Into Opposition From Home-Schooling Parents; ACLU Says Screenings Should Be Optional -
(May god and Reason save us from politicans who don't understand and who are probably primed by pharma companies! Because no child needs to be labelled as mentally ill or potentially so, it's stigmatising and self -fulfilling. Once they start on the drugs, they'll never come off them. - editorial comment)
MIDDLETOWN — Lawmakers are considering a measure that would make Connecticut the first state in the nation to mandate universal mental health assessments for school-age children.
Senate Bill 374 — one of several relating to mental health policy in the aftermath of the Newtown attack — would require all public schoolchildren in grades 6, 8, 10 and 12 to undergo a behavioral health screening.
The law would also apply to home-schooled children ages 12, 14 and 17. It makes no mention of private or parochial school students.
The assessments would be confidential, the bill says; the results would be shared only with the child's parents.
Public schools already conduct vision and hearing screenings and school nurses periodically check spines for scoliosis. This bill would add mandatory behavioral health assessments to the list.
Several mental health experts said the legislation, while flawed, could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of behavioral health problems in children.
But the proposal has been met by intense opposition from home-schooling parents, about three dozen of whom attended a hearing held by the legislature's public health committee Friday. More than 70 others registered their opposition in written testimony, a committee staffer said.
"Those kinds of decisions for our children need to be in the hands of my husband and I, in conjunction with whatever health care professionals we work with,'' said Sarah Wallace of Prospect, who home schools her three children. "Having assessments done by screeners is really an unnecessary invasion."
Another home-schooling parent, Jeanette Sterling of Southington, waited for hours to testify against the bill. Her two daughters, who accompanied her, got a real-life civics lesson.
"What will they do with the information?" Sterling said. "How will they label these kids?"
Some of those same concerns were raised by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
"If the screenings were optional, the ACLU of Connecticut would most likely support this legislation,'' David McGuire, a staff attorney for the organization, wrote in testimony submitted to the committee.
While the ACLU recognizes the value of such screenings, "help will not be effective if forced on children and their families, whose consent and cooperation is essential to successful screening and to any ensuing diagnosis and treatment,'' McGuire said. "Proceeding without consent would threaten families' privacy and the parents' rights to choose what is best for their children."
The assessment bill is one of several measures relating to mental health policy that state lawmakers are considering in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Earlier this week, a legislative subcommittee recommended the formation of a task force to examine mental health issues in greater detail.
But several speakers pointed out that people with mental illness are generally not violent, and some studies show that they are far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators.
Daniela Giordano, public policy director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Connecticut, applauded the idea behind the bill but said the vaguely worded measure doesn't address the crucial issue of treatment.
"We agree that better screening and early detection are extremely important measures to successful ... recovery efforts,'' Giordano told the committee.
But, she added, without a plan for treatment, such screenings would not address the real problem. "Only about one-fourth of children and youth who currently identified as needing behavioral health treatment currently receive such treatments,'' she said.
Peter Wolfgang, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut and a critic of the bill, said improving the mental health system for children and adolescents is more complex than simply assessing every child.
"The problem is not that troubled children go undiagnosed,'' he said, "but in the delivery of services. What parents really need is better access to services and the consolidation of agencies so that parents with troubled children are not sent from one agency to another."
JoAnn Eaccarino, president of the board of the Connecticut Association of School Based Health Centers, backs the bill. But she said the mandatory assessments should start even earlier than the middle school years.
"Our suggestion would be to start these assessments with their first entry into school,'' she told the panel in written testimony. "Educators have told us that they can identify a troubled child by first grade...so waiting until sixth grade may have missed some critical developmental milestones."
The hearing was held at Wesleyan University in Middletown as part of an effort by House Speaker Brendan Sharkey to increase public participation in state government by holding hearings outside the Legislative Office Building.