Committee Considers Construction of Mental Hospital for Kids

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Building a state psychiatric hospital for children is under consideration as a way to serve more than 180 Montana children now receiving care in hospitals around the country.

Providing hospital care in Montana might be better for the children and for taxpayers, said Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor. A state-run juvenile psychiatric hospital has not operated in Montana since the early 1990s.

Shockley is on a committee that suggested the in-state hospital idea in March and requested research. Information was presented Thursday to the Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee.

The Montana Department of Corrections alone placed 28 children in out-of-state hospitals between the summer 2006 and the summer 2007, said Steve Gibson, director of the department’s Youth Services Division. That is in addition to children placed in three private treatment centers in Montana, Gibson told the committee. The department was unable to arrange any placement for three children with mental illnesses.

The law forbids the Youth Services Division from putting mentally ill children in correctional institutions such as the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility for boys or the Riverside Youth Correctional Facility for girls.

Gibson said he tries first to place children in Montana’s three private treatment centers. If placements are not possible, officials look outside the state, he said.

The Youth Services Division spends some $2.4 million a year to send about 25 children to private, out-of-state hospitals for ill juvenile criminals with mental illness. Gibson estimated the state could run its own institution for about $2 million, a figure that does not include construction costs.

The Montana judicial branch, which includes juvenile probation, had 32 mentally ill children in its care last year, court administrator Lois Menzies. Of those, 16 were sent out of the state.

As of late February, the state health department had about 160 kids in out-of-state hospitals. The number represents only children whose care is funded by Medicaid, the government program of health care for the poor.

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