Archive for Thursday, May 4, 2000

Program helps children get back on track

May 4, 2000

Today's high-tech, fast moving world provides opportunities for children unlike any prior generations. As the world speeds by, however, some young people struggle to keep up.

Children who suffer from mental or emotional problems can get lost in the increasingly complex system. No one knows that more than Joe Vitt, director of special education for the DeSoto School District.

Vitt is working with the Johnson County mental health department on a program to slow things down for those students and cut through the red tape that usually stands between them and the help they need.

Thanks to a $500,000 state grant, the Johnson County Mental Health Department has put together a team of six mental health counselors to work in the DeSoto School District. The district donated the office space and Vitt agreed to spearhead the project.

The Family Focus program provides help for students with mental or emotional problems. The counselors work with children under 18 years old that have trouble functioning at home, in school or in the community. The children may have attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity or some other medical problem that makes it difficult for them and their families to function normally.

"The parents define what the problem is and they decide how long the services are useful to them," Eisentrager said. "The parents are really key to the success of the program."

Providing help for children is nothing new to Eisentrager and her fellow counselors. The county agency currently provides help to DeSoto Families from their Olathe office. What's new is how the help is administered.

To fully understand what the school district is undertaking, one has to go back a few years, Family Focus program supervisor Pati Chasnoff said.

About seven years ago, mental health workers in Southeast Kansas received a $15 million grant to be spread over five years. The money was used to establish the KANFOCUS program. The program involved parents, community members and school officials working together to reach children with emotional and mental problems. Community teams were established to identify and deal with the problems of the area's young people. Services were provided and data was collected, Chasnoff said.

"What they found as a result of the program was that kids were attending school more regularly, their grades went up and more children were able to stay in their homes," Chasnoff said. "When you get people involved, the entire community feels ownership of the children and will more likely work together."

News of the program reached Kansas legislators who liked what they saw, she said. A state grant program was established and Johnson County was quick to apply for its $500,000 share.

"We got $500,000 in October and were very hopeful of establishing a similar program here. Of course, they had $15 million and we only have $500,000," she said.

Due in a large part to Vitt's initiative, Chasnoff decided to spend a large portion of that money in DeSoto.

"Joe came to us last year and said he had families here who couldn't get to us in Olathe. Once they're in the program we come to them, but they have to come to us initially," she said.

Vitt and Chasnoff put their heads together and came up with a plan to make the program more accessible for DeSoto families. The school district donated the office space and the county health department used a portion of the grant to locate six counselors in DeSoto.

"We're looking at DeSoto as a prototype community. We've created a special team of six folks to come here and work out of the school offices," Chasnoff explained.

Bringing counselors in was only the first step. Vitt, Chasnoff and Eisentrager then went to work establishing the community support they say is essential to the program's success.

They rounded up community members to serve on a committee to mold the program. Because the goal was to simplify things for the families of their clients, they brought in representatives from the agencies most often involved with the process.

The committee consists of about 30 people, representing the school district, youth ministry, law enforcement, social rehabilitative services, court services, parents, the city and mental health. The committee meets about once a month, with smaller committees meeting more frequently.

The program is still taking shape, but the goal is well established.

"Ultimately my goal is to provide better services for students and to see that no student or family is missed," Vitt said. "We, like other districts, have children dropping out of school. Because of work schedules and transportation problems, it's sometimes hard for families to get the services they need."

Nationally, 3 to 12 percent of all children have some sort of mental or emotional disorder. In Kansas, the rate is close to five percent, Vitt said.

"With about 3,000 kids in the district, there could be about 20 kids per building who are struggling," he said.

Vitt envisions a time when the parents of those kids can get the help they need without leaving their own town.

"We have 30 kids in school on probation right now," he said. "They're spread out over five different probation officers. That makes it more difficult to keep track of what's going on."

A single probation officer for DeSoto students would make more sense, Vitt said.

"Why not have one officer assigned to the students here, possibly in an office at the high school?" he said. "A condition of their probation is that they attend school. A single officer would make it easier to ensure the students are doing what they're supposed to be doing."

If the program develops like they think it will, Chasnoff said, the mental health department will seek funding to establish similar ones in nearby communities.

"Of course each community is different," she said. "That's why you get the people who live there involved, to break it down and see what works."

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