Why Mental Health is a Foster Care Issue - Amara

Why Mental Health is a Foster Care Issue

by Chelsea Talbert

As Amara wraps up our incredible months-long community engagement process for our 29-acre property in Pierce County and as we look towards what the next 3-5 years will entail, we want to be sure we remain focused on what’s truly important: ensuring that children, families, and community in Pierce County have the resources and support we need to thrive.

I am Amara’s Pierce County Partnership and Engagement Manager and am working with our community on these efforts. One of the ways we believe children and families can be best served is by speaking out and advocating for programs and services in our area that address critically important needs that may help families before they are in danger of being separated – including behavioral health care.

In late December, the Tacoma City Council unanimously rejected rezoning for a 105-bed psychiatric hospital in Tacoma. A recent News Tribune article credits the failure of the rezoning to a concern over concentration of services in one area of Tacoma. In thinking about this, I tried something: I re-read the article and replaced the words “behavioral health” with “cancer treatment.” This was quite illuminating. We would never prevent people from seeking help with cancer, heart disease, broken bones, etc. However, the council vote reinforces the shame and stigma attached to mental health.

We all recognize the need for increased access to psychiatric beds and behavioral health services. We absolutely need these services in Pierce County at large, but there is a dire need for services and beds in Tacoma as well.

Why is this important to a foster care organization like Amara? Children enter foster care at twice the rate in Pierce County than they do in King. As our community looks at the increased need and zoning of psychiatric hospitals and behavioral health services, we must take into consideration the impact this has for children and families.

The 2019 Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds Annual Report notes that children who should be served by mental health systems are often funneled to the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), which becomes the service provider as a last resort. The dependency process was created to address children who have been abused or neglected; however, it is now sometimes used as a means to provide mental health services that are otherwise unavailable to children and families. Children are entering foster care when there are no allegations of child maltreatment and the only “parental deficiency” is that the parent is unable to provide the level of care the child requires.

“Regional Administrators (R.A.s) said youth with serious mental health needs were previously served by a much more robust community mental health system. However, starting with the financial recession in 2008, funding for these services began to disappear, and slowly so did the services themselves. For example, R.A.s described a six month wait period to simply have a child’s mental health assessed through the community mental health system, and a dire lack of adequate inpatient beds for youth in extreme crisis. The loss of supports to youth in their homes and communities contribute to crisis situations endangering youth and their families, and parents reach a point where they can no longer meet the child’s needs in the home. It is at this point that DCYF becomes involved.”

The report recommends we ensure behavioral health services for children and youth are available in all communities. A robust community health infrastructure would support children in their homes and avoid the need for out-of-home placement.

People experiencing a mental health crisis are a greater risk to themselves than to others. These are complex issues and we know the process of finding and agreeing upon the right place to support a health care facility is not easy. However, we must find a way to provide the behavioral and mental health services to children and adults in our community while also eliminating the problematic framing and stigma we perpetuate.

As Amara continues the process of building out a space on the 29-acre property in Pierce County, we center our vision in the transformation of the ways in which children and families experience foster care and in how we connect prevention and treatment so that families have the best chance of staying together and so that all people feel safe to seek help.

To learn more about the State of Mental Health in Tacoma, check out this podcast (https://www.citizentacoma.com/2019/12/18/episode-66-the-state-of-mental-health-in-tacoma/)

Interested in learning more about how our community is coming together to support each other in Pierce County? Email me here. I’d love to connect!


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