Leader Blues

Monday, July 31, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Children warehoused

That is roughly $23,000 a child, and the state has no clue about how often the expenditure is useful and how often it is worthless, or worse. That is the condition of state mental-health services for children, acknowledged by the state officials who supervise them and, by inference, by some of the people who get the money and provide the services. It is no wonder that Arkansas ranks around the bottom when national studies compute where in the 50 states life for at-risk children is most favorable.

“The fundamental problem is that we don’t have a system,” Ray Scott, deputy director of the state Department of Human Services, told legislators this week. “We have an episodic providing of care.”

Those receiving the care go from one program to another without any overall review or coordination, he said. Our attention has been brought to these conditions at least partly by the revelation last month that the owner of a camp in northeast Arkansas that houses quite a few of these children — the Lord’s Ranch — has been chartering planes at his company’s expense to fly Gov. Hucka-bee around the country to political events.

Huckabee says it is merely a coincidence that since the Lord’s Ranch began pitching in heavily to his and his wife’s political war chests and to Huckabee’s independent committees that the state Medicaid allotments to the camp rose from $140,000 to $8.5 million a year. The House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs, some of whose members are the lucky recipients of Lord’s Ranch political largesse, decided to take a look at the mental-health practices. They did not learn much. Several lawmakers wanted to know why Arkansas spends more per capita than any of the states on children housed at these kinds of facilities. No one had a clue.

Maybe other states had other sources of money besides Medicaid to treat those children, the Lord’s Ranch director said.
The Lord’s Ranch attorney said if too many kids were being sent there who shouldn’t be there it was not the facility’s fault but the state’s fault for approving the claims. How can the state do an honest job of screening the assignments and claims, state Rep. Jay Bradford asked, if the providers are spending so much money lobbying and on political gifts to those who make the state decisions?

It is an old question around state government, but still a good one. We need a penetrating examination of the system of providing mental-health services to children, like the one mandated for the foster-care program a dozen years ago after a federal lawsuit. It should be a priority of the next governor. The children deserve it, and taxpayers who are laying out such extravagant sums should demand it.