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Sacramento Bee

November 3, 2010

Plan to keep mental health service to children

Local mental health and education officials have conjured a temporary plan to continue to offer mental health services to schoolchildren with emotional issues in Merced County.

Early last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used his line-item veto authority to eliminate $133 million to fund the statewide AB 3632 program. The 25-year-old program is meant to provide mental health services to disabled students.

Susan Coston, assistant superintendent for special education with the Merced County Office of Education, said she has met officials from the Merced County Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Services. The short-term plan would be recommend that families transfer their children from the AB 3632 program into regular mental health services.

However, students would need to be Medi-Cal eligible to receive regular mental health services from the county's mental health agency. Coston said officials from the county's office of education will cooperate closely with school districts and families of those students who aren't Medi-Cal eligible. "We are going to work with parents and districts to explore all the mental health services that could be made available to the child," she added.

Ultimately, what officials want is for the schoolchildren to continue to get the services they need, Coston said. Over 50 children are served by the program throughout the county.

Recently, the California Department of Education released $76 million in federal funds to maintain the mental health services, despite the governor's veto. Fred Balcom, director of Special Education, said that's the same amount of money that has been disbursed to each county office of education in the past. Typically, the state and federal government each provide their own share of money. "The federal share is the same," he added. "We simply made sure that the federal money got sent out. This is to make sure that the federal dollars continue to flow as they should."

Coston said MCOE receives about $163,000 in federal funds. That money is passed on to the county's mental health agency.

A mental health and disability rights advocate group recently filed a lawsuit, alleging that Schwarzenegger violated the rights of hundreds of thousands of disabled students who received mental health services under the AB 3632 program. A federal law requires that mental health services be provided to students who need them. "The services are mandated by the federal law," said Lee Andersen, superintendent of schools in Merced County. "Regardless of state funding, we are still obligated to provide the services."

Coston said officials hope that the long-term plan would be that the lawsuit will overturn Schwarzenegger's veto and the program will be back in place.

Still, the state hasn't reimbursed the county's mental health agency a total of $383,000 for the program over the last four years.

Manuel Jimenez, director of the county's mental health agency, didn't return repeated phones calls.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507, or yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.