Florida Senator Kathleen Passidomo says Florida's mental health crisis is getting worse and needs a total revamp.
"You just don't throw money at it, you have to revamp the whole system," she said in response to a recent Contact 5 investigation that found children still falling through the cracks nearly one year
after the Parkland school shooting prompted lawmakers to dedicate millions of dollars to school mental health programs.
"Little has changed but, unfortunately, we only started recognizing it recently," she said about a system some families told us is failing them.
One Tampa father shared with us his own trials of trying to get help for his 13-year-old son.
"All we've been asking for is treatment and we can't get it," said the father, who we are not identifying in order to protect the identity of his son.
His son has been diagnosed with several mental and behavioral disorders and is now facing criminal charges after he admitted he stabbed the family dog and, recently, tried to poison his parents with toilet bowl cleaner. His father has been fighting to get his son into a long-term treatment facility but told us for the past 5 years the boy has been in and out of clinics, trapped in the state's revolving door.
"He's been to three therapists, two psychiatrists, five different Baker Act facilities and three [short-term] residential treatment facilities," his dad told us. Now, he says, he's left with little choice but to give up custody of his son to the state's child welfare system.
"It's just wrong. The only way I can get him the help he needs is to give him up," he said.
Pam Jeffre, Executive Director of Success for Kids, a Tampa non-profit dedicated to helping families navigate the state's web of services, says she's witnessed other families give up their children to the foster care system. The state system will often pay for the expensive mental health treatments private insurance won't pay the bill for.
"Medicaid is a more robust insurance plan especially when it comes to kids with mental health issues," said Jeffre. When asked if this was indicative of a broken system, Jeffre responded: "I wouldn't say
the system is broken, I would say the system has some holes and, unfortunately, this family fell through one of them."
Children with mental illness is a growing problem in Florida.
"It's rampant and it's getting worse," said Senator Passidomo. In 2016, Passidomo helped get a law passed to provide better mental and behavioral services across the state, but they never actually budgeted any money to funds the program. Passidomo will be pushing to fund the program during the upcoming legislative session.
"When you identify a child with severe mental issues, we don't have places for them in the state, we don't have enough beds," said Passidomo.
Currently, there are 526 residential treatment beds for children in Florida.
"We don't have enough facilities that can handle serious mental illness," she said.
After the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Senator Passidomo helped push through $69 million for mental health services at Florida schools.
Still, she said, the system is behind and any real changes will take more time.
"It's not going to change overnight. We're not going to be able to fix these kids overnight."
Statement from Florida Senate President, Bill Galvano
I am committed to making sure our re-examination of school safety policies does not end with the legislation we passed earlier this year. We must continually review existing policies and encourage new ideas to keep our students safe. However, I also believe the policy and budgetary reforms Florida adopted might have made a meaningful difference had they been the law prior to last February. The shooter may not have been able to possess the weapon he used against his fellow students. There would have been fewer gaps in communication and response among first responders. Newly enhanced policies regarding mental health screening of young Floridians might have guided the deranged gunman toward a less destructive path. Funds to harden the physical structure of the school and provide additional safe school officers and other individuals trained to respond to the threat might have prevented the calamity.