Connecticut youth homicides, suicides alarm officials

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Fourteen Connecticut youths under 18 years of age were victims of homicides this year, as the effects of the COVID pandemic — trauma, fear, depression, isolation and alienation — have taken a tragic toll, State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Speaking during a forum organized by Speaker of the House Matt Ritter and attended by leading lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, state agency experts in mental health and children’s issues agreed there is a growing need for residential treatment, as well as more funding for reaching children in crisis, who are getting younger and younger.

And while 96 percent of Connecticut youth are covered by health insurance, including 40 percent — about 300,000 — in the HUSKY programs for low-income families, there is still a need for wider benefits for thousands of children.

“Not a week goes by, right, when we hear from a family with a 12-year-old child with just morbid depression and suicidality, released from a hospital, back home, on a waiting list,” Eagan said. “People can’t leave the hospital with cardiac care that way, but we treat mental health crisis that way. But we can fix that.”

She called on lawmakers to address the structural problems of the system, including better inter-agency coordination, more investment and a strategic plan on workforce development and insurance rates.

Eagan, who is co-chairwoman of the state Child Fatality Review Panel, which examines monthly reports on sudden and preventable deaths, said it’s clear the pandemic is taking a drastic toll.

“The age of children who die by suicide continues to get younger and younger,” she said, noting that while final reports are pending with the Office of the State Chief Medical Examiner, it appears the youngest suicide victims this year could be 11 and 12.

“And they’re not the first children of that age to die by suicide in this state this year or last year,” Eagan told about 20 lawmakers in the Children’s Behavioral Health Forum held in the Legislative Office Building.”Suicide is now the second-leading cause of preventable death for children starting at age 10. It’s a national trend and it is a Connecticut trend. We have also seen an increase in teen homicides. Homicides this year are the highest I have seen them in my 10 years as the child advocate.”

After the hearing, Eagan said some reports on suicides are pending, so a confirmed total for 2021 is not yet available. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reports that in 2020 there were 15 suicides of those 19 years of age and younger. In 2019, there were 20.

Statewide, across all age groups, there were 359 suicides during 2020 and 426 in 2019, according to the medical examiner. There were 122 homicides last year and 157 in 2019.

“Their deaths have to be understood not just in the context of public safety, but in the context of this children’s mental health crisis because their deaths are also the product of despair and helplessness as well,” Eagan told the lawmakers and agency heads.

Eagan recommended that lawmakers consider revising state rules on insurance and Medicaid reimbursement rates for behavioral health care, and to consider the role of state contracting, which often covers the difference between what insurers pay and what families end up owing.

She said the workforce providing services for kids is another area that needs strengthening. School-based mental health services should be a key focus for lawmakers who in February will return to the Capitol for the short budget-adjustment session.

“The majority of school districts in Connecticut don’t have school-based mental health,” she said.

“Prevention can’t be only about treatment,” she said. “It has to be about the bedrocks of well-being for children, and I think those bedrocks are really shaky right now. How many children go to kindergarten classrooms that have more than 25 kids in the class with one teacher? That problem is getting worse. How many children go to school that live under the poverty level? That number is getting worse, too.”

The trauma and fear that kids see at home, are brought to schools, she warned, stressing that while various state agencies work hard at their missions, structural and coordination issues remain. “Because everybody is a role player, but nobody owns the field,” she said.

Deidre Gifford, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, said a lot of the work toward helping children is underway in the executive branch agencies.

“Each of us has a key role to play,” she said. “No one state agency can own this issue on its own. We all know we need to get to prevention. We have a crisis right now that is manifesting itself in emergency departments in hospitals, at the very acute end of mental health problems, but we need to get to a point where we are addressing prevention and mitigation.”

She said that while 96 percent of kids are covered by private insurance or HUSKY, increased rates for mental health providers, including psychiatric residential beds, as well as three pending agreements with state hospitals, are crucial.

Ritter, D-Hartford, said the problem is multi-layered, but he anticipates results from the forum, and he expects a bill to emerge next year.

“There are literally tangible ideas that we can take that can be drafted into a bill. And we have to have a public hearing and we have to work with the agencies and (the Office of Policy and Management) and that is the anticipation,” Ritter said. “We know we have a lot of action items to take away from here. The goal is to start drafting a bill.”

State Rep. Tammy Exum, D-West Hartford, warned that getting residential beds for children in crisis is only part of the solution.

“The child will be safe, but the needs may not be met, which means that the anxiety is exacerbated, which means that the family is in crisis,” she said. “And it can linger. The crisis is right now. What could we do today that would make for a difference in the lives of these children and families?”

“Together we’re going to be able to move this state forward,” said Rep. Catherine Abercrombie, D-Meriden, co-chairwoman of the legislative Human Services Committee. “We have a huge issue going on with our adults, too, and our young adults,” she said. “Suicide in this state, we know it’s up.”

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT