State lawmakers are confident that Senate Bill 2, which has passed out of the Committee on Children, will continue to build upon previous legislation that ensures the general well-being of Connecticut youth.
The bill contains several measures that cover protections for public libraries and expand requirements that certain information about kids’ education and child care be provided in Spanish. It also aims to help more children get enrolled in HUSKY and continue work that began last session to provide mental health support for kids.
“It’s all about access to services and a continuum of care,” said Sen. Ceci Maher, D-Darien, who serves as co-chair on the Committee on Children.
The bill covers a few of the major issues that children’s committee leadership said they wanted to tackle this session. Members also pushed measures that would encourage safe storage of cannabis products and create a police sting operations unit to address online sexual abuse of minors. The committee has no more scheduled meetings this session.
Maher identified the key components of the 22-page bill as:
- Reducing the cost of licensing and renewal fees for social workers;
- Providing a Spanish speaking service coordinator for English language learner students who have special needs;
- Providing behavior health advocates to help serve uninsured populations, or when there’s problems with insurance;
- Adding Medicaid reimbursement for suicide risk assessments;
- Giving free mental health evaluations at school-based health centers;
- Creating sanctuary libraries.
A public hearing on Feb. 24, which lasted for more than five hours, showed vast support for the bill. But there’s still room for changes, Maher said.
“I heard from the libraries that they want to sit down with us and talk a little bit about the wording so we make sure that we get this right,” Maher said. “We did hear from people about wanting the [Department of Social Services] to hire temporary and part-time employees to collaborate with nonprofit organizations to identify children who aren’t enrolled in the HUSKY health program.”
Beyond taking public comment into consideration, the Committee on Children’s ranking member, Sen. Lisa Seminara, R-Avon, said the discussion will remain “ongoing” among lawmakers.
“There is a lot to like in the legislation,” Seminara said, especially highlighting the changes to school-based mental health services and making it easier for social workers to renew their licenses.
“There are, however, questions regarding whether the funds that would be expended by this legislation could be more efficiently used to bolster current state services,” Seminara said. “The bottom line is we all share the goal of strengthening mental, physical and emotional wellness for children. We just need to continue working collaboratively to put out the best possible final product.”
The extent of the changes to the bill remains unknown.
“There will be some changes. Do I think that the changes are going to be enormous? No, it’s probably just a little bit of wording as it stands right now,” Maher said. “But it’s still a little early in the session. There’s a lot of different bills out there, and we’re going to see what comes out of those and make changes as necessary.”
The bill includes protections for public libraries, such as the creation of a “sanctuary public library,” or a library that lends books that have been banned in other contexts and doesn’t prohibit the availability of books or other library materials. The bill would offer certain grants to sanctuary libraries.
Public libraries have come under attack in recent months as state legislatures and right-wing groups call for the banning or censoring of certain books and programs, particularly those that pertain to race or the LGBTQ experience.
“There are those who believe that restricting the choices of others is an effective way to protect children,” wrote Douglas Lord, president of the Connecticut Library Association, in public comment. “This is not the case. If a book about a topic is restricted, the topic still exists. Only through learning and discussion can challenging topics be understood.”
This measure sparked discussion during a public hearing late last month, as some Republicans expressed concern about sexually explicit materials that children may access through the library.
“The concern I have in here … is making the libraries more of a sanctuary library,” said Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, during a public hearing. “There are some libraries that ban sexually explicit books that quite honestly could be harmful to children, and we’re giving incentive grants to libraries that actually include those type of books to children.”
S.B. 2 would give families access to their family service plans in Spanish. Children who qualify for early intervention services would also be able to get those services in Spanish.
“The governor has talked about this as well,” Maher said, pointing out a push by the Education Committee for a bill of rights for the parents of English language learners, which Gov. Ned Lamont voiced support for in late February.
Family service plans and early intervention services are typically ways to support families that have children with disabilities or special needs.
“We’re making sure that people, whose primary language is Spanish, are entitled to getting help from Spanish speaking service coordinators,” Maher said.
Hispanic and Latino residents make up Connecticut’s largest minority group at just over 17% of the population, according to 2021 estimates.
The bill would create the Office of the Behavioral Health Advocate within the state’s Insurance Department. That office would be responsible for helping mental health providers get payments for insurance-covered services, providing information to decision-makers on mental health and analyzing policy implementation around mental health, and helping people get access to coverage for behavioral health services, among other tasks.
It would also require that Medicaid cover suicide risk assessments that are conducted at schools.
The mental health bills are an extension of work that began last session, which was marked by the passage of three sweeping bills that expanded access to mental health services. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, kids have reported increased mental health needs, including higher instances of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse.
“This bill is really a comprehensive set of policies that are designed to support children, their families and professionals who work with them,” said Sen. Martin Looney, the president pro tem of the Senate, during a public hearing on the bill. “It is carrying on in the spirit of the major bills from last session.”
The bill also would mandate that the state’s Department of Social Services hire temporary and part-time employees to work with nonprofits to enroll eligible children in HUSKY, Connecticut’s Medicaid program.
“I was just down at a nonprofit in Stamford called ‘Building One Community,’ and that’s one of the things that we’re talking about is [hired workers and the organization] helping the local community and rural kids,” Maher said.
The employees would be hired for the fiscal year that ends in June 2024.
“The Department appreciates the intent of the proposed provisions to provide additional supports for enrollment of children in the HUSKY Health program as there is long-standing research that demonstrates that application assistance can boost enrollment in Medicaid enrollment for children, especially for children of families that may not speak English as a first language,” wrote Andrea Barton Reeves, commissioner of DSS, in public testimony. “Given the recent expansion in HUSKY coverage for children, regardless of immigration status, these efforts could help ensure that all eligible children are aware of HUSKY.”
But, she added, the money that would go to fund the hiring of additional workers may be better spent toward ongoing outreach efforts and grants to nonprofits.