Mental Health and Substance Abuse: Giving Children and Families Access to Critical Services

Mental health is one of the most important aspects of a child’s overall health and wellbeing. Children who do not receive treatment for mental health issues can be at risk for abusing substances. According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness and substance abuse are a cycle that feeds itself: as mental illness goes untreated, substance abuse will usually worsen and vice versa. Substance abuse and/or untreated mental health problems can lead to a host of negative outcomes including performing poorly in school or being involved with the justice system.

Mental Health Services for Children are Not Readily Available


Children with mental illness and substance abuse problems often don’t have access to the critical services they need in order to live a healthy life, succeed in school, and remain out of the justice system. In the last year, only 58% of Florida children who needed mental health care received services, leaving a little under half of children with mental health needs susceptible to the risks associated with untreated illnesses at an already vulnerable period in their lives.

Children in the Foster System Are Especially Vulnerable

Children in Florida’s foster care system with a history of maltreatment or abuse are already susceptible to risk factors that can be exacerbated by undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. Evidence suggests that children in the child welfare system with mental health problems are less likely to be placed in permanent homes and more likely to experience placement changes than those children without mental health issues.

Those children that do receive treatment may not be receiving comprehensive care: foster children in out-of-home placements can be given psychotropic medications instead of receiving other types of therapeutic treatment. In 2017, almost 11% of children in Florida’s out of home care had a prescription for one or more psychotropic medication.

Untreated Issues Lead to Justice System Involvement

According to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, 65% of the youth in the care of the Department of Juvenile Justice have a mental illness or substance abuse issue. Examined more closely, the data shows that 32.9% of all youth committed have a history of mental health problems and 53.4% are currently using drugs. These numbers are disproportionately higher for girls with 48.8% of committed girls having a history of mental health issues, and 55.7% abusing substances.

Treating mental health and substance abuse issues before a child enters the justice system could save the state an estimated $53,665 per youth- and would avoid potentially worsening mental health, as youth may develop trauma and trauma-induced disorders like PTSD that can compound their existing mental health needs.

Children are being Baker Acted at Astonishing Rates

The number of youth Involuntarily Examined (Baker Acted) in the past five years has increased by nearly 50%.  In 2015, over 32,000 children received involuntary examinations statewide as compared to almost 25,000 in 2012, nearly a 31% increase. There is a significant correlation to the rates of students being arrested in schools, as that number has dropped over 40% in the same period of time.

In Florida there is no minimum age for a child to be Baker Acted when there is reason to believe that the child is mentally ill. In 2015, more than 2,500 children age 5-10 were Baker Acted. Recognizing the rate and ages of children impacted are serious issues, Florida legislature has convened a task force to study Involuntary Examination of Minors and filed legislation to address the problems. The task force is set to release its final report on or before November 15, 2017. These findings will be utilized to recommend policy change in the upcoming legislative session.

Opioid Crisis Impacts Children

Drug overdose deaths increased by 55% in just one year. The Center for Disease Control finds that 9.7 per 10,000 drug overdose deaths are youth age 15-24. Florida’s children are feeling the impact of the opioid epidemic as they lose their parents to drug addiction and overdose. Data from the Department of Children and Families shows that around 600 children a month are removed from their home to out-of-home care due to parental substance abuse.

Investment in Treatment, Care and Early Identification is Needed

While Florida has the third highest percentage of mentally ill uninsured people in the country, the state ranks 49 out of the 50 states in spending for the provision of mental health services.

Substance abuse rehabilitation needs to be accessible to people from all walks of life, but is often difficult to receive without high quality health insurance. Programs have been added to reach low-income substance abusers but the problem is growing.

The problem goes well beyond funding. Children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are often not being diagnosed early enough,receiving services only when they have already made contact with the system. Meanwhile, when children do receive services, those who have both mental health and substance abuse issues can be given incomprehensive care that only treats one of these problems in isolation.


  • Increase investment in quality community mental health and substance abuse treatment programs: Access to services before children and families are in crisis can save the state money in the long run.
  • Reduce the number of children who are Baker Acted: Training is needed to help identify children who truly need involuntary examinations/emergency mental health services. Parameters need to be in place to ensure parental notification and a minimum age limit.


What the Children’s Campaign Is Saying…

 Additional Resources

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