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Kirk Woundy, communications and grants manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate in Colorado Springs, holds "Below the Surface" posters created for an awareness campaign to prevent youth suicide. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s youth mental health crisis has reached worst-yet status, as evidenced by recent outcries from the health care, child welfare and juvenile corrections systems.

A recap of the just the past few months: 

Nearly every district attorney in the state signed a letter saying there are no beds for kids in distress who’ve been arrested but don’t deserve lockup. Children’s Hospital in Aurora declared a state of emergency because so many suicidal kids are stuck in the hospital with no beds available at psychiatric treatment centers. And child protection caseworkers say they are sometimes sleeping in hotels with at-risk children because they have nowhere to send them. 

After an onslaught of criticism aimed at the state Department of Human Services, budget plans released last week by Gov. Jared Polis took aim at solving the severe shortage of youth treatment beds. Along with his $40 billion budget proposal for next fiscal year, a wish list that will face legislative adjustments, the governor announced emergency spending that goes into effect immediately. 

The nearly $12 million in emergency discretionary funding, from federal coronavirus aid, is expected to create 45 additional youth treatment beds. That would put a significant dent in the statewide shortage, as officials estimate there are 50 kids in Colorado now waiting for a bed in a psychiatric hospital or a lower-level residential center.

The governor tagged $5 million to double a pilot program created by the legislature earlier this year to decrease the number of kids waiting in hospital emergency departments or in foster placements because there are no treatment centers with an available bed. 

Under the program, a central office at the Department of Human Services will oversee admission — and discharge — for 30 beds at various centers that are selected to contract with the state. Families, county child welfare departments and hospitals could ask for a bed through the state office, instead of having to shop around for a center that has an available space. 

And instead of the current going rate of about $750 per day, the state would pay from $900 to $1,000 per day, per kid, an incentive for facilities to make beds available.

An additional $6.1 million in emergency funding will create 15 additional youth psychiatric beds. The funding will go to two youth treatment providers, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health and Southern Peak Regional Treatment Center. 

The goal is to encourage existing youth treatment centers to expand or provide higher-level care so that Colorado children and teens aren’t sent out of state for treatment, said Mollie Bradlee, deputy director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families in the human services department. The state is in the process of choosing contractors that will provide the beds. 

A third spending measure pours $770,000 into a new pilot program that aims to address concerns raised by district attorneys across the state. A letter signed by 21 of Colorado’s 22 district attorneys blasted the state human services department for not providing shelter or residential placement to young people who are arrested but don’t fit the criteria to go to a detention center. 

Kids who’ve been accused of less-serious crimes, under the law, cannot be sent back to the street alone because they are juveniles. Recent state and federal laws made it illegal to send them to a detention center, instead requiring that they go live with family, another suitable adult or a shelter. Yet the state human services department has not set up a system to place those young people in residential care, meaning that youths have had to sleep on the floor of judicial centers or spend hours in the back of police cars, the district attorneys said.

Under the new program outlined by the governor’s office, a few counties will test out a system partnering with Shiloh House, a Denver-area youth residential center. The plan is to fund eight beds, allowing young people to stay for up to 21 days before either returning home or going into longer-term residential treatment, Bradlee said. 

State officials have not yet selected the participating counties. 

Polis also dispensed $19.7 million in federal stimulus funds to another division of the state Human Services Department related to adult mental health. The money will create an additional 64 hospital beds for adults who have been found incompent to face criminal charges because of mental illness. The beds — which already exist at the state mental hospital in Pueblo and at community providers including Denver Health and Peak View Behavioral Health in Colorado Springs — are used to restore defendants’ competency so they can participate in court proceedings. 

The average stay is 120 days, in which time patients receive psychiatric assessment, medication and therapy. The expansion means the state competency program could serve an additional 150 people each year, said Jagruti Shah, director of forensic services at the state Office of Behavioral Health.

Currently, there are 358 people awaiting mental health restoration services across the state, Shah said. The state receives an average of 375 court orders for competency evaluations per month compared with 175 per month before the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a pretty lengthy wait list at this point.” 

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues.

Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of Montana, before moving on to reporting jobs in Texas and Oklahoma. She worked for 13 years at The Denver Post, including several years on the investigative projects team, before helping create The Sun in 2018.

Jen is a graduate of the University of Montana and loves hiking, skiing and watching her kids' sports.

Email: Twitter: @jenbrowncolo