Legislators aim to help troubled children

Proposal would provide mental health services for those younger than 6

October 10, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Two influential lawmakers are planning to introduce legislation that would launch a statewide effort to provide mental health services to troubled children before they turn 6.

State Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. said he and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, hope such a program will close "a big gap" in Maryland's care for preschool children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he will also press Gov. Parris N. Glendening to include in his budget the $7 million recommended by some administration officials to help child care providers deal with such children.

"It will save substantial dollars down the road," said Van Hollen, noting that youngsters with emotional problems often end up in special education and the criminal justice system.

The senator's statement came after a hearing at which mental health experts stressed the need for early intervention when children are failing to develop the emotional resources and social skills necessary to learn in school.

Michelle Parker, a developmental consultant at the Reginald S. Lourie Center for Infants and Young Children in Rockville, estimated that about 20 percent of children could use some type of mental health service.

Tracye Polson, director of the therapeutic nursery program at the Lourie Center, said a common problem is a child who is kicked out of three or four daycare centers because of chronic kicking, biting and hitting. Each change of provider creates additional stress on the child, she said.

Al Zachik, an official of the Mental Hygiene Administration, said a good first step would be to spend $7 million to hire 120 behavioral specialists to consult with daycare providers on dealing with difficult children without expelling them.

Although the request has the support of some state agencies, it could run into resistance from budget officials. The governor's office has warned that it is unlikely to propose new programs next year because of expected revenue shortfalls - which are likely to be exacerbated by the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

Ironically, the horrors of that day are likely to increase the stresses on children and the resulting behavioral problems, experts said. "This generation is much more vulnerable than it was a month ago," Parker said.

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