House infant and toddler mental health study committee

Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, opens the Sept. 19 meeting of the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social & Emotional Health she chairs in this screen capture from the Georgia General Assembly committee video archives.

State legislators examining the need for mental health services in early childhood have back-to-back meetings scheduled next week.

“There’s a pretty robust program planned,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, who chairs the House Study Committee on Infant and Toddler Social and Emotional Health.

The five-member panel has convened twice before.

During the first session they heard from medical and other professionals about how traumas affect the development of babies’ brains — and what that means for the teens and adults those children become.

The second session focused on model programs aimed at preventing infant traumas, diagnosing social-emotional issues at an early age and treating them before they become ingrained.

Figuring out how state agencies could house and fund mental health intervention programs for young children is the topic of the third meeting. It’s scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at the CHRIS 180 main office, 1030 Fayetteville Road in Atlanta.

CHRIS 180 is in the first year of a federally funded 5-year pilot program. Kathy Bragg, a licensed clinical social worker, gave a brief overview of the nonprofit’s model at the study committee’s Sept. 19 meeting.

It’s a two-pronged approach, Bragg said: First, train educators to recognize and understand early childhood trauma and give them tools to help repair it.

“We know that trauma looks different in children than it does in adults,” Bragg said.

The second prong is wrap-around services — intense support for the family, to help eliminate the source of the trauma. It’s home-based, Bragg said, to draw on familiar institutions and people.

“We’re in their community and we’re addressing their needs within the systems they can afford,” Bragg told the panel.

Last month’s meeting also featured pilot programs in the Clarke County School District, the Muscogee County Public Health Department and the Incredible Years program run by Easter Seals of North Georgia in three metro Atlanta county Head Start Programs.

Donna Davidson, the Easter Seals CEO, had some policy recommendations for the lawmakers. So did Dr. Trasie Topple of the University of Georgia’s Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Resource of Georgia.

Three clear stumbling blocks emerged. There’s a need for inter-agency coordination, they said, with Davidson suggesting an umbrella leadership structure. Developing a workforce that can competently serve infants and their families is also important, they said.

“That is a big gap ... understanding and getting to be up-to-date about what science is telling us about young children,” Topple said.

Funding, however, appears to be the biggest issue. Many states that run infant and toddler mental health programs have set up the system so that services are eligible for Medicaid reimbursements. Georgia has not.

“All of the models you heard today, none of them have a sustainable funding source,” Davidson pointed out.

Catherine Ivy, director of the state’s Medicaid Waiver Programs, is among the speakers scheduled for Wednesday’s session, which includes presentations from several other state agencies. A panel discussion also is planned.

The study committee also will meet Thursday, Oct. 17, at 1 p.m. in room 606 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta. An agenda has not been posted, but that session is expected to be live-streamed on the House website.

On the committee with Dempsey are Reps. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock; Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers; Robert Dickey, R-Musella; and Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

They’re tasked with reporting their findings, including any recommendations for action, to the 2020 legislative session.

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