A bill worthy of Brishell

I had a very unique opportunity during last week’s D.C. Council hearing on the “South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011.” I sat next to Ms. Nardyne Jeffries, the mother of one of the young shooting victims whose tragic death inspired the bill. As she told her painful story, she was moved to tears, and so was I.

Unfortunately, I was also next on the witness list. I was preparing to testify about the importance of the bill, which was sponsored by Council member David Catania to expand behavioral health screenings for children of all ages and tighten truancy rules (read the bill here). I had my script in hand, but at that moment, I could have thrown it away and spoken from the heart.  

As a parent two young children in DC Public Schools, I ached for Ms. Jeffries as she spoke so eloquently about the loss of her only child, her daughter, 16-year-old Brishell Jones. I can’t even begin to imagine how I would manage the pain if anything happened to either of mine.

I have worked as a city and state administrator, but the work was never quite as meaningful until I had my own children. I do often think about the children in the District who are confronting tremendously difficult odds, including hunger and neglect. I stay up worrying about when our work as advocates will finally make a real difference in their daily lives. I’m extremely impatient when it comes to seeing progress. I don’t think I will feel satisfied until all children have access to quality schools, healthy food, summer camps -- and the list goes on! I guess you could say, I’m in it for the long haul.

Ms. Jeffries only wanted the best for her daughter. She was an engaged parent and prioritized school. It was very clear that she had the same aspirations as I have for my children. What was most upsetting for me was to hear about the utter failure of public services to prevent the tragedy that took away her daughter.

But we can and should seek change in Brishell’s name. We can do more to elevate the importance of behavioral health and ensure that all young people have access to timely screenings and intervention and treatment if they need it. More than 13% low-income children and youth nationally require mental health treatment, but last year only 6% of children and youth in D.C. obtained mental health treatment through Medicaid. That means nearly 7,000 insured children and youth in D.C. went without needed mental health services. 

Dr. Adair Parr testified that the waiting list for an initial outpatient appointment for a mental health concern is currently 10 weeks long at the National Children’s Medical Center – 10 weeks! That must seem like an eternity to any young person suffering in silence.

I listened to Ms. Jefferies as a parent, but I also heard her message as an advocate. My testimony stressed that the complexity of behavioral health requires a comprehensive approach and collaboration among public and private providers, city agencies and advocates. We need to ensure that all children in the District get the services they need -- before it is too late.