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Lack of mental health facilities, funds force some Arizona children out of state

Posted at 8:44 PM, Feb 06, 2020

PHOENIX — Colette Johnson spent nearly half of 2019 fighting to get her son into a residential mental health facility.

He spent that time in a Mesa juvenile detention center after being arrested for an outburst that Johnson says is, "a result of his mental health issues."

"He wasn't sentenced to jail time," she said. "He was sentenced to a facility that's supposed to help him."

At first Johnson says she was told the wait would be about a month. "And then 5 weeks came up. 6 weeks. 2 months. 3 months. 4 months. Now come on."

Eventually she says she was told there wasn't enough bed space at the treatment facility, and was offered to have him sent to an out of state facility but declined.

"You have to wonder how many other parents are not only going through the same thing," she said.

Here's one of many Arizona families faced with the choice of leaving their child in juvenile detention or shipping them out of state, because Arizona doesn't have enough beds for its children with behavioral health problems.

Right now there are believed to be three facilities in the Valley where kids can both live and get the intense therapy they need over the course of several months.

But when those are full, as they often are, the kids wait in juvenile detention, emergency room or are moved to a different state.

According to a 2020 Arizona's Health Care Cost Containment System report to the Arizona Joint Legislative Budget Committee, hundreds of children have been placed out of state since 2016.

  • Syf 2019- 154 (age 20 and under)
  • Syf 2018- 170 (age 20 and under)
  • Sfy 2017- 136 (age 20 and under)
  • Sfy 2016- 348 (age 21 and under)

ABC15 spoke with another mother Camilla Parker. Her 17-year-old son waited 25 days in Durango Juvenile Detention Center.

"He had to take additional medications while he was there, he cried, he got in fights, he hated it, it was awful," she said.

Because of his age the window was closing before he would be treated as an adult. "They said well you can always send him out of state."

Not an option for this mom either, the difference is, she knows her way around the system.

"If I didn't know the system the way that I know the system because I work in it, my son would still be in the detention," she said.

After some pushing she found a spot at a facility called A New Leaf's "The New Foundation" opened up.

But just one month into treatment, "they're ripping it now from underneath us," she said.

The New Foundation's Scottsdale campus closed in December. A spokesperson says lack of funding is one of the reasons.

In a statement to ABC15 the agency said in part, "due to untimely payments from payers and ongoing fiscal obstacles, we realized it was not in our interest to continue the program."

The non-profit also said AHCCCS reimbursements "haven't kept up with inflation and minimum wages."

For it's part AHCCCS says reimbursement rates to in-patient behavioral health providers have increased by an average of nearly 20 percent since 2015.

AHCCCS contracts with healthcare management companies to administer health plans and says those companies, "are contractually-obligated to maintain an adequate network of providers and may place members with out-of-state providers for specialty services (physical or behavioral), when members' needs cannot be met within the state of Arizona."

Still the agency said it is using feedback from stakeholder work groups held in 2019 to "to inform future rate decisions, network analysis, and ongoing workgroup activity."

For now the plan is for The New Foundation's old building to be converted to house unaccompanied refugee minors entering the country, according to a spokesman.

In the mean time it was back to detention for Parker's son while she scrambled to find another open bed.

"It was actually told to me that they (a facility) get 100 referrals a month. And they have beds for 10 to 12," she said.

This time he stayed in detention for 20 days waiting for a new placement, new doctors and new treatment.

"I would like to set him up to a place where he can have the services that he needs get to a place that he can function in the community an live on his own and be able to maintain things," she said.

But worries for the kids whose parents either don't know how to work the system or don't care to. "Because they're transitioning to that adult and because the consequences are that much higher and because the world is so hard you know?"