The Rome Republican said Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed budget contains a significant funding boost for departments that help the most vulnerable Georgia residents. She sees this year as a chance to make a difference for the future.

"This is huge," Dempsey said. "Those are new dollars."

Deal's amended budget for Fiscal Year 2018, which runs through June 30, adds more than $15 million for child welfare services as a response to the increased number of children in state custody. There's also $2.4 million to expand crisis services for youth diagnosed with autism.

The big change, however, comes with the FY 2019 budget. An $11.7 million earmark for waivers, bridge funding and housing vouchers will clear nearly all the intellectually and developmentally disabled residents from state institutions.

Dempsey said that's expected to satisfy conditions of a 2010 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring they be transferred to community settings. Only a small number, the most medically fragile, will remain.

"We are about to come out of DOJ oversight," she said. "It allows us to focus not just on the demands of an adult population, but to get ahead of it."

That means focusing on children, and the recommendations from the governor's Commission on Children's Mental Health.

"If we can address that early, we have a better chance of having fewer adults who need those services," Dempsey said.

There are a number of areas where she's eager to expand services or try new program approaches.

It's become apparent, Dempsey said, that therapeutic care must be embedded in the foster care system. There are babies born to drug-addicted mothers, she said, and older children "with toxic brains due to trauma they've suffered or witnessed."

Increased funding is needed for telehealth programs, suicide prevention and psychiatry, as well as so-called "wrap around services" such as employment assistance.

"You can't just address food and shelter," Dempsey said. "You have to look at everything."

The state also can change outcomes for some developmentally disabled children, she said, with "help to find pathways to thrive, if they have the ability; to become productive citizens."

Children on the autism spectrum, and their families, can also benefit from early intervention.

"The earlier we can start, the greater the opportunity we have," Dempsey said. "A future could be different."

That's the approach pitched by Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, who co-chaired the children's commission.

Fitzgerald told a joint session of the House and Senate that opioid abuse is escalating and education is imperative for middle- and high-schoolers. Funding also will be targeted for youth crisis services, including staff training.

"Kids in crisis end up in places that are very uncomfortable for all of us," she said.

The department's budget also proposes expanding the Apex Project — school-based mental health services — to another 95 schools, along with wrap-around programs. In total, there's just over $20.6 million to follow through with the commission's recommendations.

"This represents a really significant advancement in children's mental health in this state," Fitzgerald said.

And elsewhere in the budget is nearly $6 million more for crisis services for autistic children. Fitzgerald said providers must have specialized training and education.

"We have to look at capacity-building," she said. "We need to build a workforce that can do the work."

It took a while for the state to get to this point, Dempsey said, because the focus has been on dealing with institutionalized adults. With a network of community supportive services taking shape, she said she's excited about shifting to the needs of the next generation.

"This is a really courageous step Georgia is taking, to give children and families these life-saving, life-altering, life-giving opportunities," she said.

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