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CT senate leaders announce big children’s mental health bills

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney.
Keith M. Phaneuf
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney.

Senate Democrats announced on Tuesday two omnibus bills aimed at expanding children’s mental health and child care this legislative session.

The initiative, titled “Healthy Students, Healthy Schools,” lays out legislative proposals being introduced through Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2 to help support youth mental health, provide training to school staff, increase health services in schools and expand preschool and child care.

Legislators have described the mental health crisis among children as one of the most crucial priorities this session — which is only three months long, so lawmakers will have to move quickly to get important bills through the General Assembly.

“I’ve received many, many calls, many anguished calls, from parents and families sharing stories of the mental and emotional pressures that they have been under since COVID burst on the scene two years ago, most [regarding] their children or their grandchildren,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney during a news conference Tuesday. “We owe it to the next generation of Connecticut to make sure we respond to that by providing essential services for mental health, and especially for young people, and ensure that sufficient resources are available in schools as well.”

Senate Bill 1, or an Act Concerning Childhood Mental and Physical Health Services in Schools, includes proposals such as increasing funding for social workers in schools, the use of Narcan training for school nurses and teachers, providing Narcan to school districts and offering mental health training to coaches of youth sports.

The legislation is also proposing to boost minority teacher recruitment, expand school-based health centers, cut special education costs for towns and shift start times at Connecticut high schools to later in the day, allowing for “a greater chance to get the recommended at least eight hours of sleep and reduce chances of health risks.”

The cost of special education can be expensive. A town currently must spend four and a half times its per-pupil expenditure before receiving any financial assistance from the state, Looney noted.

“For years, the Excess Cost Grant has been capped, and the districts have not received the full amount from the state that they should be getting,” he said. “We hope to address that this year.”

In 2020, districts received only 71% of the money for which they qualified, Senate Democrats said. The budget would need to include approximately $60 million in additional funding to fully fund the program.

“Senate Democrats intend to address this lack of funding and some of the larger structural issues in how the state reimburses towns for special education costs,” they wrote in a press release Tuesday. They did not elaborate on the plans.

Lawmakers also stressed the importance of bringing more social workers into schools and ensuring that families know how to navigate the mental health system and obtain resources.

They did not offer a figure for how much funding they would commit to the endeavor. Asked about the funding, Looney replied: “That is something we’re going to have to look at in terms of pay and also in terms of training, because we want facilities to not only be staffed but to be staffed by people who are prepared to do their jobs.”

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said the coronavirus crisis brought long-standing problems into focus.

“What we know is that the cracks have always been in our communities, but the pandemic has exposed those cracks and deepened them even more than ever,” he said. “We have an opportunity at this point with our fiscal situation … to actually work with advocates, work with others in our communities and find solutions to the things that have really plagued our communities for such a long time.”

Expanding mental health services and universal free pre-K

Connecticut emergency departments saw an overwhelming number of children seek psychiatric care as the emotional toll of the pandemic fell on the state’s youngest residents last year and as students headed back to in-person classes this fall.

During Tuesday’s news conference, Sen. Saud Anwar, a Democrat from South Windsor, said the issues in emergency departments throughout the state are examples of the “system being broken” in Connecticut.

“If you look at the challenges we’re seeing in emergency departments, where the children are waiting for days to get into a bed, that is a symptom of … the entire system being broken, and that’s part of the issue that we are hoping to be able to address,” he said.

“We will not be able to fix it right away,” Anwar added. “But we have a responsibility to start to fix all the different areas that need to be fixed.”

Senate Bill 2, or an Act Expanding Preschool and Mental and Behavioral Services for Children, focuses more on child care as well as engagement and access to mental health resources for children.

Through this legislation, lawmakers are proposing universal free pre-kindergarten starting at age 3 and to expand child care and preschool while ensuring staff in both programs get “paid competitively.” They also want to increase access to mentoring and after-school programs, provide additional support for children disengaged or disconnected from school and improve access to virtual mental health services.

With the federal government prioritizing universal pre-K, Connecticut will be prepared “to get the right funding to be able to achieve that in coming months and years,” Anwar said.

Senate Democrats did not offer a detailed explanation of how the program would unfold or when it would begin.

“A study of a preschool program that allowed 4,000 children access in Boston found that preschool has a huge positive effect on kids – they were less likely to be suspended, less likely to skip class, less likely to get in juvenile trouble, more likely to take the SATs and more likely to prepare for college,” Democrats wrote in a news release. “Kids accepted in preschool had a 6% higher rate of graduation from high school and an 8% higher rate of going to college after graduation.”

Increasing pay for pre-K teachers and child care workers is a centerpiece of the legislation, though details were scarce.

“Early childhood workers are responsible for a significant number of supports for children. They deserve to be treated well and to be supported so they can provide high-quality care and education, and to be compensated well for the important work they do,” said Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford.

After Tuesday’s news conference, Senate Republican leaders released a statement urging both parties to work together “to address mental health care, substance abuse, health care affordability, public safety, and workforce development issues to help children across the state.”

“We need a different approach to help children in every community across Connecticut have opportunity and security,” said Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly and Senate Republican Leader Pro Tempore Paul Formica in the joint statement. “We look forward to working hand in hand with any and all lawmakers who recognize that Connecticut must pursue a better way.”

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