Looking back on our policies on behavioral health access for children, we can see that Nebraska has made progress but that our work still isn’t done.
We can start with the infamous legislation of 2008, LB 157, more commonly known as the Safe Haven Law. The basic idea behind safe haven laws is that they protect children by allowing parents to drop infants they can’t care for at certain locations without worrying about facing abandonment charges. The initial law in Nebraska lacked an age limit and revealed that a number of parents were struggling to care for teenagers with behavioral health issues.
In 2009, the passage of LB 603 was a step toward addressing the behavioral health challenges children and youth face and the gaps in services that were revealed by the Safe Haven crisis. This bill created a “front door” to our behavioral health system and addressed the needs of specific populations, but challenges still remain, and stories of parents making their children state wards to access services are all too common.
As many as 90,000 children and youth, or about 18%, have a behavioral health disorder in Nebraska. More than half of these experience significant impairment from such problems, and about 21,000 suffer extreme impairment.
Adequate behavioral health services are not currently available. Additional reform would help children access the care they need in their own community without having to enter our formal child welfare or juvenile justice systems.
- 88 of 93 Nebraska counties currently have a shortage of mental health professionals,
- Only 4 counties outside of Omaha and Lincoln have a child psychiatrist,
- Primary care providers currently receive minimal training in behavioral health and often lack the confidence to engage in mental health screening, assessment and diagnosis.
- Mental health screenings are not a routine component of childhood physicals.
LB 556 is a bill currently pending before the state legislature. It would allow more children access necessary behavioral health services through telehealth and create a pilot project that better integrates behavioral health services with primary care providers to provide mental health screenings, assessment and diagnosis.
Access to appropriate and adequate behavioral health services helps ensure that all of Nebraska’s children have the opportunity to grow into healthy, productive adults. We need to ensure that the systems in place to address the needs of vulnerable children are dealing with their social and emotional health as well as their physical needs. We hope that the legislature will pass LB 556 and take another step toward making this a reality.