HARTFORD — As a social worker and former CEO of several nonprofits, legislative newcomer State Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Wilton, said she could offer the most insights and guidance by serving on the Children’s Committee. Last year, she got that opportunity after being appointed as its co-chair.
Of the 24 bills passed out of committee in 2023, Maher highlighted a children’s mental health measure as groundbreaking. The bill, signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont, tackled issues related to mental health access and education, and established the Office of the Behavioral Health Advocate, with the appointment expected later this year.
“We have a health care advocate, but there was, and is, such a growing need for a behavioral health advocate in this state. That need became even more so and intensified with the pandemic,” Maher told CT Examiner this week.
The law, she said, provides for more mental health care funding in schools, particularly for at-risk teenagers experiencing depression, substance abuse, anxiety, trauma, and conflict-related stresses.
“Within the Office of Behavioral Health would be a patient navigator,” said Maher, who co-chairs the Children’s Committee alongside State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire. “That patient navigator would work through the systems and figure out how best to access care.”
One frequent obstacle, she noted, relates to insurance and covering — or not covering — such care.
“Many mental health providers aren’t getting paid by insurance,” she said. “An insurance company will often deny a family or child from getting covered for mental health services. The patient navigator can work with families and providers to make sure that, where possible, insurance coverage is taking place.”
Insurance might not be guaranteed, she said, but a patient navigator is an extra tool to utilize.
Maher said she plans to watch the progress of implementing the law this year and offer her input when needed.
Maher delved into other topics such as the expansion of the state’s free school meals program and the committee’s potential role in addressing abuse at a Harwinton youth home.
The Bridge Family Center in Harwinton is one of seven Short Term Assessment and Respite — or STAR — homes in the state. They are small residential facilities housing troubled teenage girls, including victims of sex abuse and sex trafficking. But during a hearing last year, the state Department of Children and Families confirmed several cases of sexual and physical abuse at the home over the last few years. A lawsuit was also filed last year by a former teen resident claiming she was physically assaulted and sexually abused.
“We are having conversations in the committee. We have not reached any conclusions,” Maher said of the case, but did not elaborate further.
Regarding free school lunches, Maher said she was elated when Lamont and Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker announced in August plans to expand the program to all students for the 2023-24 school year. Under the plan, $16 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds would be invested into the program.
Maher said it’s essential that the governor now approve the program for the 2024-25 school year.
“It’s about making sure that children are fed at school because, what we know, is that it takes an enormous burden off families that are utilizing that,” she said. “It also breaks down the shame and bullying that goes on when children have to access free or reduced meals.”
According to the state, about 114 districts participating in the school breakfast program are eligible to receive funding, serving an estimated 177,243 eligible students. There are 13,197 eligible students in the lunch program.
On other issues, Maher said she favors regulations for summer camps and having mechanisms in place to report any complaints.
“We are looking at how, if someone gets hurt at a camp, for example, how are we posting that information?” she said.
Maher also said she’d like to update language regarding children under Connecticut General Statutes, 17a-3, which deals with the powers and duties of DCF.
“We are looking to see how we can update the language to be more reflective of the work that is currently being done,” she said. “Our attitudes and our understanding of children, and who they are and how they interact and what their needs are, has changed significantly since 1975.”