Connecticut: The Senate Approves Bill Focusing On Improving Mental Health Services For Children

The final of three comprehensive proposals seeking to increase services and resources for children’s mental health overcame its opening barrier Thursday, receiving wide support in the Senate.

Senate Bill 1, which would improve mental health services in schools, raise pay for child care workers and establish a minority teacher scholarship fund, among other initiatives, passed the Senate by a vote of 33 to 2. Republican Senators Rob Sampson of Wolcott and Ryan Fazio of Greenwich were the only dissidents.

Fazio had presented an amendment to the bill that would have abolished different teacher certification expenses. The amendment failed when Democratic senators stated income loss from elimination of the fees was not factored in the state budget estimate.

“We could easily make child care 20% or 30% less expensive this year with simple improvements to regulations … We could easily improve teacher recruitment by eliminating their $825 of certification fees,” Fazio said in a statement after the debate. “While there are some parts of SB 1 that I support … I fear that SB1 represents the same old strategy that continues to fail regular families and make CT unaffordable. I will continue to work with my colleagues for real solutions.”

Sampson was not immediately available for comment.

Two other sweeping mental health bills targeting services for children made it through their initial chamber recently: House Bill 5001, which features everything from license reciprocity for out-of-state providers to a grant program for local school boards to hire additional mental health workers, passed the House unanimously on Wednesday, and Senate Bill 2, which focuses on early childhood services, won adoption in the Senate last week.

“This is not an end, but this is a significant step forward,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said during Thursday’s debate on Senate Bill 1. “If I were going to explain this bill, I would just say, ‘Wow, wow, wow.’ There are a lot of good things in here that should make the people of the state of Connecticut very proud that we have come together with this legislation after talking about some of these issues for such a long time.”

School-based health centers would be eligible for $10 million in need-based funding. There will be a funding program for schools to employ and retain social workers, psychologists, nurses and other school personnel.

More than $70 million will be allocated to pay raises and more newborn and toddler slots in child development facilities, up from 1,500 in the state’s current 1,500-seat capacity.

Teachers and school staff would be taught in the correct use and management of opioid antagonists like Narcan as part of the proposed plan. Pharmacy and prescribing clinicians would be allowed to dispensing Narcan to school boards, but schools would have to select one staff who could give the medicine if a school nurse was absent.

In addition, the measure mandates that the state Department of Education design solutions for expediting and strengthening paths to teacher certification and creates a task group to address teacher shortages and retention issues.. A new scholarship program for minority teacher candidates will have a budget of $1 million.

An ableism task force would also be established in schools as part of the proposed legislation to address this kind of discrimination.

“We said at the outset of this session that children’s mental health was an issue that everyone saw needed to be addressed. And we have been doing that in various fashions,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said. “The fact is, our children are 100% of Connecticut’s future. They need services. We’ve identified that, and bills like this deliver those much-needed services.”

A significant supporter of the idea, Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, termed the bill “one of the most critical pieces of legislation” that will be voted on in the next year.

People throughout our state have told me how the epidemic has left many young people suffering from trauma and mental pain in recent years, he said. Mental health support services must be bolstered and the problem in kids’ mental health must be addressed.

Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat and Senate President Pro Tem, described the legislation as an acknowledgment of the problem’s gravity

“We have recognized that there is a crisis among very young children in our state that has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said. “There are so many young children whose nurturing and preparation for school is inadequate, and the inadequacy is not fully documented until they enroll in kindergarten and are woefully unprepared.

“This bill is a commitment to take action against that, and to recognize issues related to distress and mental health challenges. … School will not be a place of failure or a place of humiliation … but a place where [children’s] natural creativity and their intelligence and capacity to grow and learn will be supported and sustained.”

The bill will now be voted on in the House.

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