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Sunday, Feb 06, 2005


Troubled Children: Trapped by Greed




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Posted on Sun, Jan. 16, 2005


Hundreds sent far away from relatives

Staff Writers

North Carolina, according to its own mental health reform plan, should treat children with mental illness and behavioral difficulties in their own communities.

But hundreds of the state's mentally ill children are placed in group homes located hours from family -- a practice that flies in the face of current thinking on the best way to help them.

Many kids end up in two counties: Mecklenburg and Cumberland.

The state doesn't keep data on where North Carolina's 33 area mental health agencies send adolescent residents. But an Observer survey of those agencies found that roughly 1,000 out of 1,800 kids placed in July in Level III group homes were living outside their home county. Level III is the most common type of home.

Mecklenburg and Cumberland had the most -- nearly a third of those 1,000 children. Cumberland had 128. Mecklenburg had 193. They came from counties stretching from mountains to coast.

N.C. mental health officials recognize this disconnect between philosophy and reality and say they're working to correct it. "Yes, we are aware of it, and yes, we're very concerned," said N.C. Division of Mental Health Deputy Director Leza Wainwright.

The state wants to use more mental health services that treat children in their homes and communities, she said. Officials believe out-of-county placements will decline as mental health agencies choose these new services instead of group homes.

But for now, Mecklenburg and Cumberland continue to play host to out-of-county children, in large part because entrepreneurs have opened many more homes than the counties need to serve their own children. These private, mostly for-profit group homes seek to fill beds by e-mailing and telephoning mental health agencies around the state, alerting them to empty beds and agreeing to take residents on short notice.

"We get calls from group homes in Mecklenburg, and we're six hours away," said Gary Stanley, Edenton-based case management coordinator for Albemarle Mental Health Center, which serves six coastal counties. Some homes even offer to help foot the bill for parent visits by paying for transportation or motels, he said.

Some children in out-of-county group homes live in adjacent counties, still close to their own homes. But agencies also place children 100 or more miles from their homes.

These distant placements pull children from relatives and friends who could support them, experts say. They make family visits, family therapy and family reunification more difficult, and they complicate case managers' efforts to monitor residents.

"How much oversight can you have when you're that far away?" said Diane Bauknight, leader of a group of Asheville-area parents of troubled and mentally ill children.

When mental health officials suggested sending Bauknight's 15-year-old daughter, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, to a group home near Charlotte, Bauknight refused.

Some mental health directors say placing children a distance from home removes them from bad influences, such as gangs or drugs, and discourages them from running away. Some say their communities simply don't have enough mental health services or group home beds.

"It's astounding that we could accept this as a children's mental health system," Bauknight said. "It's dangerous. It's expensive."

"It's a knee-jerk kind of thing," said Pat Solomon, coordinator for N.C. Families United, a support group for families of children with mental health challenges. "People start saying, `I can't control this child.' And then (agency officials) say, `Have you thought about putting them out of home?' "

Kids in Out-of-County Group Homes

Of the state's 33 area mental health agencies, seven had 50 or more children in group homes outside their home county, as of July 1.

Wake had the most placed outside their home county -- 89, with 11 in Mecklenburg and 19 in Cumberland.

Pathways, serving Gaston, Lincoln and Cleveland counties, had 29 in Mecklenburg, with a total of 77 out of county.

CenterPoint Human Services, serving Davie, Forsyth and Stokes, had 31 in Mecklenburg, with a total of 60 out of county.

Western Highlands Network, serving Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey counties, had 26 in Mecklenburg, with a total of 50 out of county.



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