HILDEBRANDT: Children first in Erie County

The mental health and well being of Erie County's children should a major concern to all residents of the community. That's a
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

The mental health and well being of Erie County's children should a major concern to all residents of the community.

That's a pretty broad statement, but Ohio defined it as a priority more than 25 years ago when Gov. George Voinovich called for the creation of a partnership between government, communities and families to help the state's children thrive and succeed.

Toward that end, the state created the Ohio Family and Children First Cabinet Council and established 88 County Family and Children First Councils. The mission of the council has been to provide a forum to coordinate services for children and their parents or guardians; to encourage local agencies serving children and families by planning and implementing programs, and to monitor and evaluate progress in assisting families.

In Erie County, the Family and Children First Council's vision is to improve the quality of family life. It is a conduit for directing public and private agencies toward achieving that goal.

That's only a thumbnail sketch of the purpose of the council, and doesn't begin to describe the local services which can help families, local governments and school districts create a healthy environment for the kids in this county.

There are dozens of agencies and organizations, both public and private, in Erie County whose aim is to help children. Finding them is difficult for the individual parent or guardian. And, over the last three years, some of the agencies and organizations which offer services to families have concluded that a stronger effort needs to be made to help individuals. For that reason, work is underway to apply for funding to step up to the next level of support through the federal Center for Mental Health Services.

Based on the 2006 census figures for Erie County, children 17 years old and younger represent more than 20 percent of our population. National mental health statistical information indicates one in five children has mental health issues which, left untreated, could result in poor academic performance, strained social relationships, delinquency, substance abuse and increased risk of suicidal behavior.

For a community the size of Erie County, tremendous progress has been made in providing mental health care to children issues despite the limited public funds available. And, the county government's general philosophy of being reactive rather than proactive in providing assistance to children has made it difficult to achieve the goals established by the Ohio Family and Children First Cabinet Council.

Erie County falls short of the target in providing adequate mental health support for children. The county's mental health report card says it all.

There are major deficiencies in identifying, diagnosing and treating children with emotional problems. Even more challenging though is that families have a difficult time trying to find professionals who can help.

There are no pediatric psychiatrists based in Erie County. If a child needs to be hospitalized, it's off to Toledo or Akron. There is no access to intensive day treatment. There is no residential therapeutic facility. The end result is those kids in the greatest need are forced away from family, friends, school and their neighborhoods.

Healthy families make for a healthy community. Looking for funding sources and ways to do a better job of enhancing the well-being of children is important.

The admission that Erie County falls short in delivering services is a bold statement. The fact that there are agencies and organizations in Erie County that recognize the county's shortcomings bodes well for the community.

In developing a plan to overcome the county's short-comings in delivering comprehensive mental health services to children and families, the plan calls for re-directing the community's efforts by providing school-based mental health services.

It is a major retooling of the system, but one that makes sense. Schools are where kids spend most of their day and where problems often come to the

surface.

The return on the investment would be positive for kids in need and for the school districts. This kind of program would go a long way toward providing a good environment for all children in all classrooms, and it would fill in the gaps the county has failed to fulfill.