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Children in foster care: How to address their mental health needs

Here's how we can get foster child the mental care care that they need.

Editor's Note: Last week, we discussed the mental health needs of children in foster care and how they're not being met.

There is an urgency to ensure each child's needs are addressed when he or she enters foster care. Children in this system have greater health needs and frequently suffer from higher rates of behavioral and learning problems that are often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Fortunately, we now have a guide on how to get these children in foster care the care they need. Recently, at a meeting sponsored by CMS Health Care Payment and Learning Action Network on how to pay for quality health care, reports were delivered from two children's hospitals, Nationwide Children's in Ohio and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. The reports found that by coordinating health, mental health, health education and dental services, both systems are seeing that children in poverty get what they require and do better in terms of health and behavior. It even projects improvements in educational outcome.

In Wisconsin, the Children's Hospital has essentially assumed command of the care of foster children. The hospital merged with the social service agency that supplies case workers and classes for families. Moreover, it ensures that all health and mental health services and information are shared on one record. Also, Children's Hospital supplies special training, back up and support to families who take on the responsibility of children with special behavioral needs. Their succesful method is fundamentally the plan that Delaware's Task Force laid out and has been implemented with great success. The protocol includes that:

  1. All children entering care see a pediatrician for an initial visit within the first few days and also see a psychologist.

  2. A case worker fills in the team on family situations and school issues.

  3. All care is communicated and the team takes responsibility to make sure the child gets the care that he or she needs and that parents, both foster and biological, are supported.

A well-trained trauma-informed care team understands that acting out may be a response to what has happened to the child, and does not lead with a diagnosis and possible medication. They ask the question, "what happened to this child?" rather than, "what is wrong with this child?" In many cases, simply starting with the former question, and then providing what is needed in a coordinated way is the first step to helping these children to a better path.

Here in the Delaware Valley, we have many children in foster care who do not have access to some of the finest children's health and mental health facilities in the country. Although they do have dedicated social workers, in public and private agencies, committed foster parents, and school systems that work to help these kids, the children still suffer needlessly. Perhaps it is time to do what the Delaware Task Force recommends and coordinate care like the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. These are some of our most vulnerable children and if we don't help them now, their lives could be negatively affected in the long run. We have the resources;  it is time to coordinate the efforts.

If you have or know a child in foster case who needs additional support. Here are some local resources:

  1. Children and Families First a state-wide, private non-profit social services agency working to strengthen Delaware families and help children thrive. They offer a variety of programs across the lifespan to support children and their families.

  2. Delaware Guidance Services for Children & Youth, Inc. a not-for-profit provider of comprehensive mental health services for children and their families across Delaware. DGS offers a range of services for a variety of behavioral health issues from attention problems to divorce-related challenges.

  3. People's Place a nonprofit organization that offers a variety of programs and services to the families, adults, and children of lower Delaware. To foster growth and independce, People's place offers counseling, education, prevention, intervention, supportive services, and advocacy.

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