Kansas has millions of dollars to spend on youth crisis centers. But no one uses it

TOPEKA, Kansas Kansas has earmarked $6 million for juvenile crisis centers — places that keep kids out of jail by helping them get through mental health crises — but hasn’t spent a dime yet.

The money is for the counties and cities that will run the shelters. But local government officials say the tax revenue fund is so tangled up in red tape that it’s not worth bothering with.

So even though the money has been accumulating in the fund since 2018, none of it has been spent and the state hasn’t added places that could mean the difference between treatment or incarceration for some young people.

Johnson County filed a formal application in 2018. The county then waited for months to work out an agreement and was never able to squeeze money out of the state. This abandoned the project.

In a November message to the Statehouse committee, Robert Sullivan, director of the Johnson County Department of Corrections, said the building had already been built and was not in use.

Now Johnson County is looking for a juvenile crisis center, but it’s far from formal.

“I don’t think we were close to doing anything other than a program or a project,” said Joe Connor, Johnson County Assistant Superintendent.

Connor said the county offers crisis services for adults but few options for youth. Children are imprisoned without these alternatives. Adult services are not very suitable for children.

“Practitioners will tell you that it’s best to address (adults and children) separately,” Connor said.

State Senator Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisbourg, pushed state officials in late November to squander free funds so counties could start moving forward. She is frustrated that the bureaucracy is holding back funds that could solve the problem.

“Chronic hunger is a problem and it’s like having cupboards full of food and we just locked them up and don’t want to feed those who are hungry,” she said.

Several lawmakers have said they want to update the law to remove bureaucratic hurdles to quickly launch apps. One possible change: simplifying the application process.

The bill, introduced early in the current legislative session, slightly changes the wording of the state law. Under current law, juvenile crisis centers can only help children with mental health problems. This change will allow these centers to help young people with behavioral problems.

This may mean that children without a diagnosed mental disorder may receive services.

Desmond Bryant-White, program manager for youth advocacy group Progeny, said one positive interaction when young people need help can have a positive impact on their entire life. Negative interaction can lead to the opposite result.

Public defenders say Cedric Lofton would have been alive had he been given psychiatric help. Instead, the 17-year-old was sent to the Juvenile Reception and Evaluation Center in Wichita, where he died after being detained.

Bryant-White said teens in need of psychiatric help are most often sent to prison. He said that instead of locking up minors with behavioral or mental disorders, the state should refer them to professionals who can refer them.

“Investing in youth is very important because it could very well turn them in a different direction,” Bryant-White said. “We have to show the youth that we are ready to invest in them.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at [email protected]

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio dedicated to health, social determinants of health, and their relationship to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photographs may be published free of charge by the media with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 SDG 89.3. To learn more, visit KCUR 89.3.

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