Indiana Children Struggling Without Standardized Mental Health Care

Mar 25, 2016

Amber Becker with her daughter, McKenzie.
Credit Jill Sheridan/IPBS

Twelve-year old McKenzie Ashkettle is not well.

“She’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, bi-polar, bi-polar with psychotic features, ADHD, ODD, EH, pervasive development disorder,” says her mother, Amber Becker, who began her search for answers over six years ago.

“She’s been kicked out of so many facilities and everyone blames it on the other one. Mental health says it’s autism, autism says it’s mental health and then they say it’s medical, medical says it’s mental health, so nobody wants to take responsibility.”

Mental health care diagnosis and treatment are not standardized – there is no set map to care. Without this, some children struggle.

“Keep them for a couple days, say they’re ready for discharge but they’re on so much medication and once the medicine wears off you’re right back to square one,” says Becker. Three years ago, when McKenzie was 9, Becker decided she needed to try something else.

“When the cops came in they had to physically restrain her; she was taking things from the floor like bobby pins and trying to stab them, spitting at them, kicking them.”

McKenzie was admitted to the hospital and Becker contacted the Department of Child Services. They said it wasn’t an immediate emergency and they could only open a case. The counselor failed to tell her about a new initiative to help children in need of mental health services.

Becker didn’t know it, but the Children’s Mental Health Initiative, or CMHI, was started one year earlier. Every county has an access site that can help families navigate funding, finances and treatment systems.

Service manager with the Department of Child Services Katie Connel says the initiative has been able to aid around 800 children in the past few years.

“There wasn’t that avenue to get to those mental health services without joining and going into a system,” said Connel. “Our program is using our funding, we’re flexible, we’re trying to blend it and braid it for kids in the state. “

Because she didn’t now about this program, Becker sued the state for assistance. That’s when she was informed about the CMHI and DCS agreed to pay for residential treatment.

Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health’s Dr. Leslie Hulvershorn says many still struggle to find continuity of care. She says, when it comes to mental health, people can’t expect the same options as with other illnesses like cancer.

“I think one could argue that we should have way more research, way more treatment options than we do for cancer but in fact it’s very much the reverse,” Hulvershorn says.

Hulvershorn says shortages on every level from federal funding to hospital prioritization make it difficult – mental health is a money loser.

“So a hospital has to say, ‘we’re going to have a psychiatric unit because we know it’s important,’ and in fact these disorders are even more lethal because the number two cause of death for adolescents is suicide,” says Hulvershorn.

Back in her clothing store in Mooresville, Becker is flipping through years of paper work and says they are still lacking answers. One doctor points to abnormal genetic testing and another to unexplainable brain mapping. In one case, a doctor flatly told her that her daughter would never lead a normal life.

“I just don’t know… I refuse to look at it that she’s never going to get married and never hold a job, and he told me that if we were wealthy we could get the services she needs,” says Becker.

The court case to provide funding for her daughter’s care is still open.