Wyoming legislators should save at-risk youth program


Wyoming has a program that helps keep at-risk youths with their families so they don’t wind up in foster care, jail or psychiatric treatment centers.

It exemplifies something I believe many state lawmakers would consider  Equality State values: Keeping families intact while helping them work through their problems. It’s also a fiscally responsible solution, because the alternatives are all more expensive.

Wyoming’s High Fidelity Wraparound program has an excellent track record. Of the 1,000 families the program has served since 2015, 95% of the children have remained in their homes, schools and communities. Providers use a team approach that includes crisis intervention, respite care, safety planning and many other services tailored to a family’s individual needs.

Next month, however, legislators will consider killing the program, which is offered under Medicaid. It’s one of the recommended cuts for the Department of Health, which will take a $135 million hit if the Legislature approves Gov. Mark Gordon’s proposed budget.

Wraparound has a biennial budget of $5.8 million, half of which comes from state funds and half from the federal government. It’s a significant amount of money, but lawmakers looking to trim the budget should also consider the subsequent costs to the state if at-risk kids and their families don’t receive the help they get from Wraparound.

Eliminating Wraparound would be a perfect example of the Legislature being penny wise and pound foolish.

Because of the traditional methods states use to develop these kinds of programs, children and families may be plugged into systems that are deemed appropriate by the state, but do not actually meet children’s needs.

Wraparound takes a different, holistic approach. It’s an intervention strategy that supports families and aids them toward their goals through a family care coordinator and others who are professionally and socially involved in their lives.

The National Center for Innovation and Excellence describes the program this way: “Wraparound is not something that you ‘get,’ it’s something that you ‘do.’ It’s not a process, a program or service. These fundamental principles merge with a ‘whatever it takes’ philosophy that embodies an unconditional commitment to team development, family empowerment and outcome-based interventions.”

In other words, Wraparound is a prime example of leveraging a village to raise a child.

The cost per child annually averages less than $15,000. A stay at a psychiatric residential treatment facility, in comparison, costs more than $58,000.

Foster care, the Boys’ School in Worland, the Girls’ School in Sheridan and the juvenile justice system all play important roles in protecting children and society. I’m glad the state is not cutting them. But without Wraparound as part of the equation, they will all see increased demand for placements.

The decision the Legislature must make on Wraparound’s fate shouldn’t  just focus on money. It should consider the best method to guarantee the success of children who have complex behavioral health conditions.

In many cases, positive results are achieved by also helping parents and siblings. Wraparound has done just that — helping mothers and fathers find jobs, apply for Medicaid, obtain food stamps and housing assistance — whatever it takes to provide a safe environment for troubled children.

Magellan Healthcare manages the statewide Wraparound program, which has about 140 employees, including certified-family-care coordinators, family and youth support partners and respite care providers.

Kyla Maestas of Acceptance and Ability in Rock Springs has been one of Wraparound’s providers for six years. “We’ve never turned a youth away,” she said. “I’ve seen some very positive and amazing outcomes from the work that we do. Families are finding their voice; they’re able to advocate in systems that don’t typically listen to them.”

The program meets both immediate and long-term needs, Maestas said, including reuniting families after parents give up their parental rights.

It’s not always possible to determine how much money Wraparound ultimately saves the state, but Maestas provided a good example of the cost benefits.

“My agency alone in the past month has kept eight kids from being placed in protective custody if we hadn’t intervened,” she said. “And because we did intervene, the kids were placed back into the community and stayed in their schools. They didn’t get put into foster care.”

In many areas of the state, the type of psychiatric services needed by at-risk youths are not locally available. Jennifer Gale, a pediatric neuropsychologist in Park City, Utah, has seen dozens of Sweetwater County at-risk youth through Wraparound.

“This program and providers are saving these youth,” Gale wrote in a letter to the Joint Appropriations Committee. “I can’t begin to imagine the level of regression that could occur for these children and their parents without this vital lifeline.”

Wyoming has consistently reported one of the highest rates of teen suicide, triple the national average. Many of the children served by Wraparound have expressed suicidal thoughts or tried to hurt themselves.

Last week, lawmakers killed House Bill 62 – Suicide prevention, which would have provided classroom instruction to students so they could recognize warning signs that a peer may be considering suicide. Opponents argued — mistakenly, in my view — that the burden to teach children about the issue shouldn’t fall on school districts and teachers. Community and faith-based organizations, they maintained, are the appropriate venues.

I urge the 34 House members who killed the bill to examine how Wraparound can help prevent youths from committing suicide. If they’re not willing to give students the tools to help others, legislators should fully investigate the assistance provided by a community-based program that’s on the budget chopping block.

Maestas said she’s disappointed that the JAC approved cutting all of Wraparound’s funding, which will now be decided by the full Legislature.

“They’re not hearing about the impact we have on our state,” she said. “They’re not hearing about the things that we see: kids dumpster diving and siphoning gas, kids who don’t have enough food.

“I think Wraparound is Wyoming’s best-kept secret,” Maestas said.

Gale’s message to lawmakers who control Wraparound’s fate? “Basically, it’s simple,” she wrote. “Models of risk and resilience predict that if you cut funding, and as a result, block our most vulnerable youths’ access to critical lifeline support, mental health crises will escalate and the community as a whole will suffer its consequences.”

High-Fidelity Wraparound’s funding is a mere one-line item in the state budget bill. Will legislators take the easy way out and rubber stamp what the governor and JAC have recommended, or will they consider how small programs will affect the big picture?

The consequences of ending the program would undoubtedly lead to the state spending more, while potentially placing some of our most vulnerable youth in systems — including jail — that will lead to further harm.

Wraparound is worth saving.

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