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A Cut That Costs Too Much

August 26, 2004

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may appear to have saved California $20 million by gutting the Children's System of Care, a program created 20 years ago in Ventura County that now provides closely supervised outpatient treatment, including therapy and tutoring, to about 4,000 seriously mentally ill children statewide. The cuts, however, are sure to come back and pick Californians' pockets, unless the governor has the good sense to reverse them before the Legislature's scheduled adjournment Friday.

It's not too hard to find waste in state mental health programs. In a recent congressional hearing on special education, Supt. David Gordon of the Elk Grove School District near Sacramento testified that the state was over-identifying children as mentally ill. Common adolescent behavior like spitball-throwing, he suggested, is sometimes enough to make students eligible for costly special education counseling. Children's System of Care, however, is not a fuzzily defined mental health mandate. It requires counties to demonstrate every year that each dollar they spend accomplishes measurable and nontrivial goals, such as reducing the time and the cost of placement in group homes and state hospitals, increasing school attendance and achievement, and reducing recidivism rates in juvenile justice programs. It is limited to children with "severe, disabling" mental illness.

Without treatment, most of the kids now served by the system are likely to end up in mental institutions, foster care homes, emergency rooms or taxpayer-subsidized social service programs.

According to a 2001 report by UC San Francisco researchers, the system saved $645 million in expenditures for such things as criminal trials, incarceration and foster care. Because the study was commissioned by state proponents of the program, its auguries of success may be exaggerated. But even if the university overestimated the monetary benefits of the program by a few hundred million dollars, it would still be a bargain.

With the Legislature about to adjourn for the year, the governor is being deluged with requests to restore all sorts of programs, such as prison education and community health clinics. The children's mental health program is probably just a tiny blip on that multibillion-dollar radar screen. But if Schwarzenegger takes a closer look at it, he will see why it deserves his attention and respect.

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