Jacqueline Wattles photo

Newtown mothers joined lawmakers and advocates Monday to support legislation that would streamline mental health services for children.

They rallied behind a bill Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, introduced that would require existing state departments to coordinate mental health services for children, increase training for mental health treatment, and create a task force to research the causes of mental health disorders.

The bill, which is on the Senate calendar, would require the state Department of Children and Families to consult with mental health experts, state agencies and partnerships – such as the Department of Social Services, Commission on Children and Behavioral Health Partnership – to implement a new system for providing mental health services to children that focuses on early identification and in-home treatment.

It aims to create an “interconnected framework” for schools and health providers that focuses on teaching educators, parents and health providers to identify mental health issues in children and direct them toward proper treatment options. The legislation calls for the creation of a “regional network of child psychiatrists” that consults with a child’s primary care provider if a parent raise mental health concerns.

Bartolomeo’s bill also seeks to develop a streamlined referral process for families that seek in-home visitation and care.

“In-home visitation programs are already existing, but they’re operating differently. In order for us to have a continuum of care that really works, we need to have common threads woven throughout the system so that there’s consistency and continuity,” Bartolomeo said.

The visitation program would be supplemented by “universal health and development screenings” for youths, and the bill would create a standard of training for in-home care providers.

Dr. Darcy Lowell, the founder and executive director of Child First, said the bill’s focus on early intervention is essential because research has indicated that when young children are exposed to traumatic events, a phenomenon known as “toxic stress” leads to chemical changes in the child’s developing brain.

“It’s as poisonous as lead, as poisonous as alcohol to the young developing brain,” Lowell said. “We have to do something about this [and] we know we have to intervene early.”

Jacqueline Wattles photo

Lowell said the developmental changes could lead to a wide range of health issues from diabetes and heart disease to cancer.

And after Adam Lanza killed 26 children and educators in Newtown last December, mental health treatment reform has been a rallying issue for mothers like Jennifer Maksel and Nelba Marquez-Greene.

Maksel’s younger son escaped his first grade classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School when Lanza opened fire on his teachers and classmates. Maksel has another son who has struggled with mental health issues his entire life, and Maksel said he received treatment in Maine with little difficulty but the family struggled to obtain that same level of treatment after moving back to Connecticut in 2005.

“Now I have two kids that need help,” Maskel said. “The fact that the shooter obviously fell through the cracks of our mental health system does not surprise me a bit, after all that I have been through. We may never know all the facts, but there is no doubt that the system failed.”

Nelba Marquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist, whose daughter Ana Grace, was among Lanza’s victims spoke about the holistic nature of the bill and her grief.

“In one day, all of the problems of our mental health system that I knew existed and that I had seen in my professional life manifested themselves in the most personal and tragic way,” Marquez-Greene said. “I hope this is the beginning of a long-overdue effort to increase access to mental health treatment.”

The legislation is intended to augment sweeping legislation signed last month that requires mental health services to be deemed “urgent care” by insurance companies and seeks to increase transparency by requiring insurance providers to specify reasons when care is denied.

Bartolomeo’s bill would also seek to reimburse families or schools that employ mental health services. Bartolomeo said this initiative, along with educational and awareness programs for schools and parents that would be mandated by the bill, would be paid for by private and federal funds. Bartolomeo said discussions have already begun with federal departments and the bill has been structured in a way to put it “in very good light for receiving [federal] funding.”

The private and federal funds would also be channeled to an 11-member task force of experts and public officials that would be charged with researching the effects of nutrition, genetics, and antidepressants on children’s mental health.

State Rep. Diana Urban, who co-chairs the Children’s Committee, said the task force is an important component of the bill and will help determine the next step for mental health treatment reform.

“This puts us ahead of the curve nationally to take a look at those types of inputs that have an impact on our children’s mental as well as physical health,” Urban said.

With only weeks left in this year’s legislative session, Bartolomeo and Urban said Senate and House leadership are “firmly behind” the bill and expect it to pass before the June 5 deadline.