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CBS 58 Investigates: Shortage of children's mental health care leaves parents desperate for help

WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- A shortage in mental health care for children is leaving parents struggling in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin ranks 41st in the nation when it comes to Children’s mental health, according to a report from the Wisconsin Office of Children’s mental health. The report, which cites a study by Mental Health America, the low ranking is partially because of high rates of depression and low rates of treatment for kids with mental illness.

One mom struggling to care for a child with mental illness is Lisa Tello.

Tello’s now 11-year-old son, Owen, suffers from mental illness and he’s been hospitalized more than 20 times over the last five years.

“Suicidal ideation, hurting himself, hurting others,” Tello says describing some of Owen’s issues. She says he also hallucinates several times a week. Tello says she often fears for Owen’s safety and her two daughters.

“It sounds horrible because it sounds like I’m describing this horrible, beastly being and he’s my child,” Tello said. “But he is also, there’s this other half of Owen that is this amazing, loving, snuggly boy.”

In October of 2017, Owen was admitted to Winnebago Mental Health Institute, a state-run facility in Oshkosh that takes kids in need of emergency detention. The things were so bad Tello and her ex-husband filed a petition with the courts to get Owen long-term treatment.

“We feel we’re unable to care of Owen and we need help with the county to find services for him,” explains Tello.

A Racine County judge ordered Owen be sent to inpatient treatment, but the county couldn’t find a place for him. Some facilities had waitlists and others rejected him.

“Some of the mental health facilities will say that his needs are too significant,” Tello said.

So when Winnebago released Owen from an emergency detention at the beginning of November, he was sent home.

“I’m not only scared for my daughters and my son, I’m scared for his classmates at school,” Tello said.

It’s been three months and still, there’s still no spot for Owen.

“I love my son a lot but it’s hard because sometimes I feel like I have to pick between my son and my girls,” Tello said through tears.

CBS 58 investigates started looking into why there’s no place for kids like Owen.

Racine County Human Services Director, Hope Otto, can’t discuss specific cases but says finding inpatient mental health treatment for kids is difficult. Otto says waitlists can range from two weeks to six months.

“The struggle that we have with this is that they are certified by the state and privately operated so because of that we can’t have a guarantee that somebody will be able to be taken into a specific program,” Otto said.

Adding to the problem, the number of facilities available is declining. Otto says 2 closed in 2017 and five have closed in the last five years. That leaves essentially 12 places across the state, a total of about 800 beds. On top of that, many of those programs only take specific groups of kids, like delinquent boys or kids with developmental delays.

“We have to look for alternative services in the community,” Otto said.

Experts say the entire children’s mental health system is overwhelmed.

“We certainly across the nation, have a shortage of child psychiatrists and psychologists,” said Kim Eithun with the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health.

A new report by The Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, which was created by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2014, shows the need for mental health services for kids is growing.

One in five kids in the state has a mental health issue. The need for crisis intervention services increased by 25 percent between 2011 and 2015. Additionally, the number of children between ages 5 and 11 admitted to Winnebago Mental Health Institute, like Owen, is up 165-percent from 2011. According to the report, that’s the biggest increase for any age group.

“It is a challenge but I think that in Wisconsin people have been very willing to come and talk at the table,” Eithun said.

Kimberlee Coronado, a mom works with the office of children’s mental health, has three kids with mental health needs.

“I have a girl who is 14 who’s been on [the waitlist] since she was eight, waiting for services,” Coronado said.

Coronado says a big hurdle for parents is figuring out what services are offered where they live.

“Wisconsin has a great challenge because we have 72 counties and each county does their own thing,” Coronado said. “There’s a lack of communication from the state to the county and from the county back up to the state.”

The 2017-2018 state budget does provide new funding for children’s mental health, including $1.2 million to develop an eight-bed children’s crisis treatment facility. There’s also millions to help fund other mental health services and preventative care.

But none of that money is helping families who need mental health care now.

“I think the biggest challenge is trying to address things on the front and back end simultaneously,” Otto said. “So we need to provide these services today and now but we also need to find a way to reverse that trend.”

Tello says Owen is receiving some at home therapy while they search for a place, but it’s a struggle every day. Tello says she’s had to call the police to help with Owen, and she’s concerned when he’s a little older, he’ll get arrested if she calls police. Then, he’ll end up in the juvenile justice system.

“I have days where I just don’t want to try anymore and I’m tired and I’m angry,” Tello said. “And I have days where I get up and I just look at Owen and say, ‘you know what buddy? I’m not giving up so you can’t give up.’”

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