House bill proposes mental health screenings for children entering foster care

Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 3:12 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - A proposal making its way through the House would require youth in state care to get mental health screenings throughout their time in the foster system.

A bill proposed by Rep. Stephanie Kifowit (D-Aurora) would require the Department of Child and Family Services to assign a mental health provider to all children in their care. During the first month of their care, the bill would require them to undergo a preliminary screening, and then have subsequent appoints or treatments scheduled until they are no longer with DCFS.

Children already get a physical check up when they enter foster care. Advocates of the bill see it as a way to be proactive about mental health with DCFS children, instead of trying to find them help once they start showing symptoms of mental illness.

“We do annual check ups for their health, we don’t do annual check ups for mental health,” Director of Legislative Affairs with the National Chapter of Social Workers Kyle Hillman said. " This is not ‘go with the affirmation that something is wrong,’ this is ‘let’s just check in with this child.’”

Mental Health and Addiction Committee members were hesitant to pass the bill, namely because DCFS was not present at the committee hearing, and did not have a official position on the bill. Without having the agency there to answer key questions, several legislations felt they were on the fence for the bill.

Additionally, following recent scandal for the department including keeping children in psychiatric hospitals for longer than medically necessary, legislators were concerned that the requirements of the bill could not be implemented.

“Even if (DCFS) were to agree, I don’t feel that would alleviate some of my concerns,” Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz (D-Glenview) said. “I think it goes back to our responsibility to ensure that we don’t make promises to families and children that we can’t keep.”

Despite hesitations, it passed out of committee 11-5 based on a promise from Kifowit that amendments would be on their way. Five legislators still voted against it.

Representative Mary Flowers was one of the “no” votes. She told Kifowit she would never vote for this bill, saying it assumes all children in DCFS care have mental illness and may lead to them being overmedicated. She also expressed concern that the bill would not help children who age out of the department.

“So once they leave, age out, or do whatever to be no longer in the care of the department, so what?” she said. “So what about their mental health? That doesn’t matter anymore.”

The bill is in its early stages, much of the legislative language has not been added yet. Kifowit said details and concerns raised by legislators would be considered as she worked on the bill more with parties that would be affected by it.

Technically, it will head to the house floor for its second reading. According to Kifowit, however, it will wait there until substantive amendments are changed. Then it will go before the Mental Health Committee again for further discussion.

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