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Children's Care Effort Left to Wither Away

The governor uses his line-item veto to slice almost all support for a mental health services initiative that serves 4,000 statewide.

August 22, 2004|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

Carlos Ovalle, a 10-year-old who was recently diagnosed with a neurobiological disorder that impairs social skills, is among 600 severely emotionally disturbed children in Los Angeles who will lose some key mental health services after a state program was virtually eliminated last month.

Advocates and parents say the $20-million program, Children's System of Care, had been a lifeline for children like Carlos.

Using his line-item veto, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sliced almost all the funding for the 20-year-old initiative, saying the cut was "necessary to help build a prudent reserve and bring ongoing expenditures in line with existing resources over the long term."

About 4,000 California children, including some who are violent or suicidal, will be affected. The program provided intensive mental health services, including therapy, case management, emergency intervention and cash aid to cover rent, food and clothing.

In Carlos' case, the boy received weekly therapy, a change in his medication, social skills classes and a support group through Amanecer Community Counseling Services in Los Angeles.

Carlos, who lives with his family in Koreatown and has Asperger's syndrome, was hospitalized for 12 days in January after a tantrum that ended with the boy climbing over a railing and jumping onto the roof of a two-story building next door.

"I felt alone," the boy said, as his mother, Marilyn, recounted the behavioral problems that have plagued her son since he was 5.

"I was screaming for help because there were so many things he was doing that were freaking me out," Marilyn Ovalle said.

Many children will still be able to get some services through Medi-Cal, the state's health insurance program for the poor, but about 15% will lose all their mental health services.

"There's a lot of kids who would commit suicide, who would not get their lives back on track, who would become entangled in the juvenile justice system ... if they don't get this help," said Paul Yoder, a lobbyist for the California Mental Health Directors Assn., a group of county officials urging the governor to work with the Legislature to restore funding.

Vince Sollitto, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, said the governor's veto message "speaks for itself." The cut came as the governor signed a $105.4-billion budget that still leaves a shortfall expected to be as much as $17 billion over the next two years.

The Children's System of Care initiative, which started as a Ventura County pilot program in 1984, coordinates all the county services a mentally ill child might need.

For each child, mental health employees regularly meet with parents and social workers, probation officers, teachers and other professionals to tailor a plan that keeps the child at home, in school and out of trouble.

When Carlos' mother had to have an emergency C-section in July, therapists and case managers visited the boy almost every day for a week, helping to soothe his fears.

But his family's private insurance does not cover the program's intensive support services, so the budget cut means Carlos will be transferred next month to an outpatient clinic. Other families will lose the cash assistance provided to help cover things such as rent, electricity bills or even new sneakers and Boy Scouts uniforms.

Marta Guadamuz, whose 12-year-old daughter Bertha suffers from depression and often picks fights at school, received about $1,200 a year in food vouchers and other aid through the program.

Guadamuz said she hopes lawmakers and Schwarzenegger will reconsider the cuts once they understand how children are affected.

"On behalf of all the other mothers, we are asking him to rethink this decision," she said. "It is hurting children who really need help."

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