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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Are Kids' Mental Health Needs Being Met?

We continue our Project Milwaukee series on youth violence now with a look at kids’ mental health needs. A report by the Alliance for Children and Families says at least 26,000 children in Milwaukee suffer from some type of mental disorder, such as anxiety, behavior problems or depression. Members of the alliance say there’s often a relationship between violent behavior and mental well-being.
In low-income communities, schools are often on the front lines of dealing with kids’ mental health.

“Unfortunately the school system is frequently the place of last resort.”

That’s Audrey Potter, coordinator of Psychological, Speech/Language and Allied Health Services for Milwaukee Public Schools.

“From a mental health perspective, a mental wellness perspective, we understand that kids have to be adequately prepared emotionally and mentally to be able take in learning, but unfortunately we frequently don’t have the time to provide those services, time and or money,” Potter says.

Potter says school psychologists and social workers do the best they can to help students with problems that are getting in the way of learning. But some students need more intense treatment, so they have to be referred to outside providers.

Another big system in Milwaukee that encounters kids with mental health issues is foster care. There are 2,900 children in that system, and more than half of them are currently receiving therapy or counseling. But it’s not a requirement that every child who enters foster care has a mental health screening, so some say there are probably more kids who need treatment but aren’t getting it.

Denise Revels Robinson is director of the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. She says the agency is working toward implementing mental health screenings for everyone who enters the system.

“Any child who is being removed from their own family, that presents some trauma to the child. We’re taking them out of familiar surroundings and we’re putting them with someone else. And so that trauma very often is present and we want to really identity what the child’s needs are,” Revels Robinson says.

But Revels Robinson says that won’t be a cure-all. She says there aren’t enough qualified mental health providers in Milwaukee for the number of kids who need treatment.

“There’s a shortage of the professionals who understand the needs of children who have been abused or neglected. There also is a shortage of providers who will take Medical Assistance. There’s also a shortage of providers who are able to provide culturally competent services. So we need to have more of all of those,” Revels Robinson says.

Efforts are underway to recruit more child psychiatrists to Milwaukee, according to Dr. Earnestine Willis, director of the Center for the Advancement of Underserved Children at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Willis says having more doctors would help, but she says it doesn’t take a medical degree to identify kids who are having problems.

“We need to have a system in this community that see a child is at risk, have been exposed to trauma, witnessing trauma. All of those set you up for being at greater risk for being a perpetrator. We should have services that a child tells you I was last night at home and couldn’t sleep because a gunshot came through my window or my parents have suffered some tragedy, those children need to be in counseling and get support,” Willis says.

Willis says efforts to identify and treat kids’ mental health need to be more focused on prevention.

Sue Conwell says efforts also need to be better coordinated. She’s executive director of Kids Matter, Inc., a group that advocates for children who’ve been abused or neglected. Conwell says there aren’t solid bridges between the various systems that children encounter, such as schools, foster care and health care.

“I think that individual people within the systems are sort of reaching out and developing those bridges, but that as a systemic effort they need to actually be much more clear, explicit pathways. I mean, there’s a lot of person-to-person effort and when kids get hooked up with one of the people who knows the pathways, they get connected to services. It’s just too random,” Conwell says.

So what will it take to improve the system?

Audrey Potter, head of psychological services for Milwaukee Public Schools, says there needs to be a corporate and political will to make it happen.

“And frankly in my opinion that doesn’t exist in Milwaukee. There is a kind of a paucity of will to be able to implement effective interventions and collaboration for kids. That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried, and there aren’t efforts, but it’s very difficult to get a big system moving in an effective direction,” Potter says.

Potter says one reason she feels that way is because of an experience a few years ago. She led a team that asked corporations in Milwaukee for money to help MPS hire more psychologists, nurses and social workers. She says not a single company gave a penny.

Potter is part of a group called Youth Mental Health Connections that’s been working for years – without any funding – to build a more coordinated system of care. We’ll hear about those efforts Friday on Morning Edition.