Over the next few months Karen Malzak will worry about her job and her son.
Malzak is a special education aide for the San Diego Unified School District and her son, Joe, 17, has been in residential care since he was 8, diagnosed with a slew of psychological problems. “It started out [with] ADHD, then it went to bi-polar by the time he was 8 or 9...and in the last year or so to paranoid schizophrenia,” she said.
A county-run program, often referred to as AB 3632 after the legislation that created it, pays for his care; Malzak, a single parent, couldn't afford it otherwise. In the next couple months, however, a court-order by a Sacramento judge has given the county the right to hand over responsibility for kids like Joe to local school districts. School districts, in turn, will scramble to build an infrastructure to maintain AB 3632 services and take on $6 million in additional costs (countywide) to fund the program. Malzak fears that could mean layoffs for people like her.
Enacted in 1984, AB 3632 is California's version of a federal program that promises special education students, especially those with severe emotional problems, treatment for any psychological problems that impede learning. Kids like Joe, who can't function in a normal public-school classroom, are placed in a setting in which they have the best chance to learn, at no cost to parents. “He probably wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for the services,” Malzak said.
Prior to AB 3632, Malzak might have had to relinquish custody of her son to the state-schools didn't have the resources to care for severely emotionally disturbed students, and parents couldn't control these kids, nor could they always afford residential placement. AB 3632's genesis was a boy named Christopher T., whose parents refused to turn him over to the state so he could get the residential treatment he needed. Back then, California schools weren't-and still aren't-equipped to provide high-level mental health services. Counties, however, were, and AB 3632 set up a partnership: schools provide the education for the kids and counties provide mental health services.
This pairing is unique to California, said Alfredo Aguirre, director of mental health for San Diego County. “All the other states in the country, education is responsible for the cost.”
Each state is required to foot the bill for these kids' care. Problem is that California never really has. Like most public mental health programs, AB 3632 was under-funded from the start. Shirley Culson, who managed San Diego's AB 3632 program after the law was enacted, said it originally passed as “no cost” legislation. When counties complained, the state came up with $12 million to fund the program. “Our county got maybe $800,000,” recalls Culson.
Over the years AB 3632 costs grew beyond what lawmakers could have anticipated, to at least $120 million last year, up $20 million from two years ago and 10 times that initial $12 million allotment, a funding level that remained steady until it was eliminated last year.
The residential-care component of the program is the costliest, said Culson. Many kids in residential care require constant monitoring and a year in residential treatment can cost as much as $250,000. When county facilities reached capacity, a 1996 law said that kids who needed residential care could be sent out-of-county, or even out-of-state. Again, counties were required to pay for this.
Since counties are bound by law to provide AB 3632 services, they can submit claims to the state for reimbursement. However, which costs are reimbursable and which aren't is something counties and the state have battled over-evident so far in audits of nine counties' AB 3632 programs. An audit of San Diego County's program is due next month. The county says the state has shorted it close to $30 million.
Counties have cobbled together funds to pay for AB 3632 services at the expense of other mental-health programs. “The people that get hurt are indigent children and adults,” said Aguirre.
In July, a Sacramento judge ruled that barring “adequate and good faith funding” from the state, San Diego County was no longer required to provide AB 3632 services. This ruling, essentially, set the program back 20 years, leaving the county's 42 school districts responsible for the care of some 2,000 AB 3632 students. The judge's ruling has pitted two underdogs against each other over the stewardship of a desperately needed, though structurally flawed, program.
Roxie Jackson, who directs special education programs for San Diego Unified, told CityBeat that her district will have an easier time taking over the program than some of the county's smaller districts. “However, to do it at the level that would be necessary would require us to build a mini community mental health department within the district,” she said.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has told county school districts they have until Oct. 15 to decide whether to contract with the county for mental health services-which would keep the program largely intact-or come up with their own plan. Aguirre said it's the county's hope the school districts will opt for the former.
School districts had hoped the state would appeal the ruling (it won't)-and district officials thought there was solid ground for an appeal. The state, both this year and last, carved out $69 million from the yearly $900 million in federal special education dollars it receives. Of that, San Diego County gets $4 million-$6 million short of what it needs to run AB 3632. County Office of Education spokesperson Jim Esterbrooks said that $69 million represents good faith funding.
“It is our hope that [it]... can enable the county to continue to provide services. The biggest hope is we can work collaboratively with the Board of Supervisors and county staff to come up with a long-term solution.
“It's not our interest or intent to take over providing these services,” he added.
State Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer said he agrees with the school districts regarding the $69 million, though his office also believes AB 3632 costs need to be reigned in. Reportedly, the department came up with a game plan for the program that would trim costs by nearly half. Despite repeated requests, CityBeat was not provided a copy of the analysis.
Aguirre said he has seen a copy and he doesn't buy it. “For the Department of Finance to say [analysis recommendations are] going to create all these efficiencies, and we're going to go from a $130 million program to $70 million, was a joke.”
AB 3632 remains the most accessible gateway an emotionally disturbed child has to mental health services, Aguirre said. A 2002 study by the Little Hoover Commission, a public-policy think tank, noted, however, that lack of adequate funding from the state has forced parents to fight to get their kids the help they need.
This week, the San Diego County Family and Youth Roundtable, a parents' advocacy group, will launch a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Our community has brainstormed, attended meeting after meeting, written letters, talked to legislators,” the letter says. “Whether through education or mental health, additional dollars must be provided for these children.”
Advocates are also looking to Prop. 63, on the November ballot, that will, if passed, provide as much as $800 million annually for mental health services. The money would come from a 1-percent tax levied on Californians with incomes exceeding $1 million annually. While that money wouldn't let the state off the hook for programs it's legally obligated to fund, like AB 3632, it would provide additional money for services, such as early mental health screening for school kids, which could lessen the burden on programs like AB 3632, advocates say, by catching mental illness in its earliest stages before it reaches a crisis level. As Malzak put it, “Our money is not being spent on prevention; it's being spent on intervention.”