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Kansas has millions of dollars to spend on youth crisis centers. But no one's using it

 State Senator Molly Baumgardner speaking to the media
Blaise Mesa
/
Kansas News Service
State Senator Molly Baumgardner speaking to the media

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas has set aside $6 million for juvenile crisis centers — places that would spare kids from getting locked up by helping them through mental health crises — but has yet to spend a dime.

The money’s intended for counties and cities that would run the refuges. But local government officials say the fund of tax dollars is so tangled in red tape that it’s not worth the hassle to pursue.

So even though money has been piling up in the fund since 2018, none of its been spent and the state hasn’t added any places that might mean the difference between treatment or incarceration for some young people.

Johnson County made a formal application in 2018. Then the county waited for months to hammer out an agreement and still couldn’t squeeze any money out of the state. It dropped the project.

In an update to a Statehouse committee in November, Robert Sullivan, director of Johnson County’s Department of Corrections, said it already had a facility built that sits unused.

Now Johnson County is looking at a juvenile crisis center but is nowhere near anything formal.

“I don’t think we came close to doing anything as far as having a program or a project,” said Joe Connor, assistant county manager for Johnson County.

Connor said that the county offers crisis services for adults, but that it has few options for youth. Kids end up in detention without those alternatives. Services for adults aren’t a great fit for kids.

“The practitioners will tell you that it’s better to address (adults and children) separately,” Connor said.

State Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, pushed state officials in late November to shake free funds so counties could start moving forward. She’s frustrated that bureaucracy tied up funds that could have addressed the problem.

“Chronic hunger is an issue, and that would be like having cabinets full of food, and we’ve just locked them up and we’re unwilling to feed those that hunger,” she said.

Multiple lawmakers said they want to update the law to carve away the bureaucratic obstacles to jumpstart applications. One possible change: simplifying the application process.

A bill introduced in the beginning of the current legislative session slightly tweaks language in state law. Under existing law, juvenile crisis centers can only help kids with mental health needs. The change would allow those centers to help youth with behavioral needs.

That could mean kids without a diagnosed mental health condition could get services.

Desmond Bryant-White, a program manager for youth advocacy group Progeny, said one positive interaction when youth need help can have positive ripple effects for their entire lives. A negative interaction could do the opposite.

Community advocates say Cedric Lofton would still be alive had he received mental health services. Instead, the 17-year-old was sent to the Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center in Wichita and died there after being restrained.

Bryant-White said teens who need mental health services are directed to detention more often than not. Rather than locking up juveniles with behavior or mental health episodes, he said the state should direct them to professionals who can guide them.

“Investing in youth is very important, because it can very well turn them on a different direction,” Bryant-White said. “We have to show youth that we’re willing to invest in them.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Blaise Mesa