Lawmaker pushes to scrutinize state program for children in mental health crisis

A WBEZ investigation found the SASS program fails to ensure thousands of children get any follow-up help, let alone the type of intensive behavioral health support many need.

SHARE Lawmaker pushes to scrutinize state program for children in mental health crisis
Illinois State Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford speaks during a press conference at Revolution Workshop in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, Sept. 23, 2021.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford is sponsoring a measure calling for hearings to dissect the state’s troubled Screening, Assessment and Support Services program.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

The Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is calling on state lawmakers to take urgent action to make sure children experiencing a mental health crisis get the help they need.

Responding to an IEA request, state Sen. Kimberly Lightford is sponsoring a measure calling for hearings to dissect the state’s troubled Screening, Assessment and Support Services program, known as SASS. A proposed 15-member task force would evaluate the program by county and analyze whether current funding is enough.

“My concerns came over the success of the program,” Lightford said. “Is it actually working? Why aren’t children receiving the supports that they need, and what can we do about it?”

Through the SASS program, children from low-income families in crisis are supposed to be assessed quickly by a crisis worker and connected with treatment.

Illinois mental health providers call SASS an essential lifeline for families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as youth have been increasingly showing up in hospital emergency departments with suicidal thoughts. But a WBEZ investigation found the state is failing to ensure thousands of children get any follow-up help, let alone the type of intensive behavioral health support many need.

About 40% of the screening outcome data are missing for cases over the past five years that required a quick assessment from a crisis worker. And there are few places to send kids in emotional distress, from psychiatric hospital beds to outpatient therapy, especially for children from low-income families.

IEA President-elect Al Llorens said WBEZ’s investigation sounded the alarm, and now lawmakers need to act. “I don’t think you can over-communicate the urgency,” he said.

“Some kind of comprehensive overview of this program is severely needed,” Llorens said. “Since the pandemic, the mental health issue has become something that’s front and center for almost everyone. But when you get down to the point of looking at those living in high poverty, it’s exacerbated.”

State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, who leads the House Mental Health & Addiction Committee, called WBEZ’s reporting “heartbreaking” but not surprising given that the mental health system for all ages has long been fractured.

“At a bare minimum, these are real kids in real crisis. We should absolutely … be tracking outcomes,” LaPointe said. “Part of it is quality, but part of it is just what kind of care kids end up in after a SASS call. So the fact that that is not happening is a problem I will be looking to solve.”

In a fact sheet, the IEA says school social workers across Illinois are seeing an uptick in students experiencing a mental health crisis “and a failure of the SASS program to address the needs of these students in an appropriate or timely manner.”

While SASS workers are supposed to screen children within 90 minutes, association members say they wait hours, sometimes late into the evening, for SASS workers to show up.

Their frustrations mirror what WBEZ uncovered.

Llorens said the state has an extra responsibility to make sure students from poor families get intervention because they often attend schools that can’t provide intensive help.

He’s taught math for 30 years at Thornridge High School in south suburban Dolton and said his district has one psychologist for all three district high schools with nearly 4,600 students.

“So you have kids that, because of that lack of resources, fall between the cracks, and it’s a shame,” Llorens said.

Officials with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, which oversees SASS, have acknowledged they need to do better. But they are just starting to hold private insurers with Medicaid contracts more responsible for what happens to youth cycling through SASS. Illinois largely outsources the SASS program to private insurers.

They say a new program called Pathways to Success would better coordinate care and provide more intensive behavioral health support — some of the work that SASS providers and the insurers are supposed to do already. Pathways is estimated to cost taxpayers around $300 million a year when fully implemented.

State lawmakers must approve the task force. Rep. LaPointe emphasized that the state is working hard to build a more robust behavioral health workforce to provide more treatment.

A spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said she has been told the task force isn’t moving forward because it encompasses work being done as part of the state’s wide-ranging blueprint to transform youth mental health. The plan includes general recommendations to strengthen the availability of crisis response for youth but does not evaluate how SASS currently operates.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government for WBEZ.

The Latest
As of 9:45 p.m., the weather service reported 10 active tornadoes in the Chicago area, according to ABC7 and WGN-TV meterologists. It was too early to assess possible damage — but shortly after 10 p.m., ComEd was reporting 2,226 outages affecting 201,217 customers.
Sale once wanted to be like Mark Buehrle, the “gold standard” of dependability. After a long bout with injuries, the 35-year-old is happy to be as dominant as ever.
Nothing fazed Crochet as one reporter after another from around baseball asked about the very real possibility he’ll be concluding his breakout season somewhere else after the July 30 trade deadline.
Imanaga is a rookie, but he’s also 30. One would think it might not tickle his funny bone to see the Cubs in last place at the All-Star break.