Washington, D.C. – On the same day the case against five men accused in the South Capitol Street shooting of 2010 went to trial, the Council of the District of Columbia's Committee of the Whole considered and moved the landmark youth behavioral health and truancy legislation, the "South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012", setting the stage for a first reading vote a the Council's legislative meeting on March 6.
The legislation is the result of the combined efforts of Councilmember David A. Catania, Nardyne Jefferies, the mother of South Capitol Street shooting victim Brishell Jones, Mayor Vincent Gray, and Chairman Kwame Brown.
"The correlation between unmeet behavioral health needs and delinquent activity is clear," said Councilmember Catania. "It is critical children in need are provided with appropriate behavioral health services before it's too late. The Act will transform how the District addresses youth behavioral health needs, strengthening our ability to identify signs of unmet behavioral health needs early, and allowing us to effectively intervene in order to prevent negative outcomes later."
In the days after the shooting, Catania and Jefferies began working to come up with real and substantive reforms that would make tragedies like the one on South Capitol Street less likely. Nixon Peabody, LLC provided extensive research into both youth mental health services and truancy in the District.
This past summer, Catania's office convened four public meetings to get input on the Act from residents, stakeholders, and advocates. The Act as it stands today is the product of hundreds of hours of research, scores of meetings, and significant input from those on the frontlines of the relevant issues. The Act calls for the extension of behavioral health services to all public and public charter schools students, enhances truancy regulations to ensure needed services are delivered to youth, and increases behavioral health screening at District agencies that deal with youth.
Specifically Title I of the Act calls for a comprehensive study of the behavioral health needs of District youth. This epidemiological study would collect data on the type and prevalence of behavioral health conditions including demographic and geographic information, utilization of behavioral health services, the location of services accessed, the barriers preventing access to services, and efforts to remove them. It will create evidence-based responses to address unmet needs and inform efforts to improve the current delivery apparatus.
Title II requires the creation and implementation of a comprehensive plan to expand school-based mental health services to all schools by 2016-2017 school year with a ramp up period in preceding school years. Currently only about 1 out of 3 schools in the District have behavioral health services. The plan would implement services at both public and public charter schools that include interventions for families of student with unmet behavioral health needs, reduce aggressive and impulsive behaviors, and promote social and emotional competency.
Title III enhances the District's truancy protocols by focusing the first intervention, which occurs after 5 unexcused absences, on the underlying causes of truancy and providing appropriate services. Mandating this root cause analysis will increase identification of youth with unmet behavioral health needs. Behavioral health interventions and connections to care improve outcomes for youth. The Act also empowers the Mayor to create needed enforcement mechanisms to increase the accountability of administrators and teachers involved in preventing truancy.
Title IV establishes a behavioral health training program within the Department of Mental Health for teachers, principals, and licensed staff at child development centers to identify youth with behavioral health needs and refer them to appropriate services. The Department of Mental Health will draw on its expertise to create behavioral health resource guides for parents and youth. Title IV also establishes an Ombudsman for Mental Health, an office that will serve as an advocate for District children and parents. The Ombudsman's office will help parents negotiate the inter-agency bureaucracy, resulting in better outcomes for children.
Title V addresses behavioral health practices in the District's agencies dealing with vulnerable and at-risk youth. It requires all youth in CFSA and DYRS receive behavioral health screenings within 30 days of their initial contact with either agency and, if needed, more comprehensive assessments by behavioral health professionals. It also requires the creation of resource guides for parents who come into contact with the child welfare agency or the juvenile justice system. These resource guides ensure that parents are informed of their rights and responsibilities as soon as their children enter the either the juvenile justice or child welfare systems.