We're following up now on our reporting on another state-run mental health program that's on the budget chopping block. The legislature is considering closing the unit at the Fort Logan Mental Health Institute that houses troubled teenagers. These are kids who’ve had criminal convictions or whose parents cannot control them and they need to be in residential care. Lawmakers say they can make the cuts to the state-run facility because there’s room for kids like that in privately run places.
But now one of those is closing after a 40-year run.
Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney examines what the future looks like for kids with major psychological needs.
WHITNEY: It was another long day for the Joint Budget Committee earlier this month, as they slogged through every mental health program the state funds. JBC Staffer Kevin Neimond was their guide.
NEIMOND: M-kay members, we're now on the bottom of page 24, and we're shifting focus now off of community programs and into the in-patient psychiatric facilities operated by the state....
WHITNEY: One recommended cut: A residental program for troubled teens at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Ft. Logan. The savings?
NEIMOND: in terms of General Fund, that would be $753,000 each year.
WHITNEY: Pretty small potatoes in the context of half-billion dollar budget gap, but it's still part of Governor Hickenlooper's proposed budget. JBC Staffer Neimond recommended the cut as well.
NEIMOND: what I can tell you, and how I came to my final recommendation was, there are a lot of beds in the community that are open right now.
WHITNEY:Niemond was talking about private non-profits that have live-in mental health programs for teens. And it's true that there are a lot of empty beds at places like that. But a week after the JBC hearing, a significant number of those empty beds went away. The Beacon Youth and Family Center in Englewood announced it's closing after 40 years.
Executive Director Mike Guthrie.
GUTHRIE: Five years ago we had 54 beds full, and from time to time even a waiting list.
WHITNEY: Those days are over. A succession of state and federal budget cuts over the last decade means that there's no more money to send kids to places like Beacon. That's why there are so many empty beds available.
GUTHRIE: Today I've got six girls, so in that five-six year period we've gone from 54 to six.
WHITNEY: So, it would seem like the state closing its facility at Ft. Logan could be a windfall for Guthrie's Beacon Center. The state and local agencies that have been sending kids to Ft. Logan could send them to Beacon, instead, right?. Guthrie doesn't really see that happening. The years of budget cuts mean the local governments just can't afford residential care anywhere anymore.
GUTHRIE: What I've been told across the board is the counties, because of their own budgetary issues are pretty much doing everything within their power to try to avoid a residential placement.
WHITNEY: So what happens to the kids who would have been referred to a residential program if there was enough money?
KELLER: when they're not in those residential centers, they don't go away, they don't go poof and they're vanish.
WHITNEY: Mo Keller is vice president of public policy at Mental Health America Colorado, an advocacy group. She's also an 18-year veteran of the state legislature, including time on the Joint Budget Committee. She says budget savings from cutting mental health programs are illusory.
KELLER: They're cutting programs, and they're balancing the budget, but they're not saving money. .these kids show up in emergency rooms, in courts, in the prison system, under the bridges, they're everywhere because they're not getting the services. So we're not saving any money.
WHITNEY: Keller says not every kid who would have been sent to a residential center in the past necessarily ends up in jail or homeless. She and other experts say the years of budget cuts have forced counties and social service agencies to be more creative. They can now keep most kids out of trouble with cheaper outpatient programs. But they say there’s a limit. There always will be kids who need round-the-clock care for their mental illness. Right now there are still plenty of those kinds of beds available, but little funding to actually put kids in them That, experts say, means at least half a dozen more facilities like the Beacon Family Center are on the brink of closing soon.