House infant and toddler mental health study committee

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, opens the Sept. 19 meeting of the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social & Emotional Health she chairs in this screen capture from the Georgia General Assembly committee video archives.

Federal funds could be available next year to address the mental health needs of very young children, but a House study committee found state Medicaid policies don’t cover assessments.

“We’ve got to find a way to pull our agencies together, certainly through conversations with our governor and other state agency heads ... There is a desire to make this happen,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey.

The Rome Republican chairs the human resources subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. She spent the fall leading the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health.

A final report slated to be submitted this week is expected to underscore what a host of experts have testified to throughout the group’s five hearings.

“The first three years represent the time of the greatest and fastest brain development,” said Jamie Colvard of the nonprofit Zero to Three.

And stressors in those early years affect how they develop. Dempsey said the ability to help at-risk babies and their families is a vital — and cost-effective — path toward more happy and productive adults.

“We are called. We must do this. It’s not an option any more,” she said at the study committee’s last meeting Nov. 25. “Family First is really going to offer us a new opportunity to look out for Georgia’s children.”

The Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law as part of the federal budget in February 2018, sets up a new way to tap child welfare financing streams.

It changes the focus from foster care to prevention, said Melissa Carter of the Barton Child Policy Center at the Emory University School of Law.

“At this point we really only have foster care. We have one tool,” she told members of the study committee. “When that tool is not deployed correctly ... we haven’t really addressed the problem.”

States can now apply for funding aimed at staving off the need to put children in foster care, she said. Strategies such as parental training, substance abuse treatment and interventions designed to keep kids connected with their family, school, community and peers.

However, Carter said the Title IV E funds will go only to certified evidence-based programs approved by the U.S. Childrens Bureau. A review of state plans is underway now.

Georgia officials are still working on a plan that may, or may not, include the youngest children. Committee members heard testimony about other states that have revamped their Medicaid system to include coverage for diagnostics at that age — including in Alabama.

Dallas Rabig, state coordinator for infant and early childhood mental health, walked the group through the creation of an umbrella agency called First 5 Alabama.

It started with a grant that paid for hiring Rabig, who worked with the University of Alabama to create a model. Early intervention pilot sites were established in 2015, through home visits, Pre-K and daycare settings. Pediatricians were added this year.

Rabig said First Five Alabama — a partnership of state agencies and nonprofits — “opened the door for discussion with Alabama Medicaid about possible billing practices and policy changes.” That led to more grants, used to build on their successes and participate in multi-state initiatives.

The Alabama legislature is putting $500,000 in the pot next year, and Rabig said they’re well-positioned to make use of Family First Title IV E funds.

Dempsey said she hopes the study committee’s report helps state agencies and lawmakers determine a viable path forward.

“I was quite impressed with Alabama and what they’ve done in their five years ... If Alabama and our other neighbors can do this, we can too,” she said.

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