New law broadens unaccompanied youths' access to mental heath services

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Hillary Gavan/Beloit Daily News (From left): School District of Beloit homeless liaison Robin Stuht, graduation coach for unaccompanied and homeless teens Jessica Moehn, student Alyssa Rodriguez and school social worker Alyssa Boutelle advocated for a bill to be passed allowing unaccompanied youth under age 18 to obtain mental health services without a parental signature. AB Assembly Bill 848 was signed into law on April 4.

BELOIT - Thanks to School District of Beloit staff, junior Alyssa Rodriguez and Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, unaccompanied youth in Wisconsin will be able to access mental health services without a parent or guardian's signature.

"She's made a difference for so many youth in the State of Wisconsin," school district homeless liaison Robin Stuht said.

Loudenbeck authored Assembly Bill 848, which was signed into law on April 4.

The push for the bill started in January 2017. Rodriguez was having suicidal thoughts. She desperately needed mental health services, but she was unable to access services because she was an unaccompanied youth, living with friends and relatives. Her mother was out of state and her father was out of the county.

Rodriguez's only option without a parent's signature was to be admitted as an inpatient at the Winnebago Mental Hospital in Oshkosh. Rodriguez, who was 15-years-old at the time, was at the facility for two days. She said the forced inpatient treatment was one of the worst experiences of her life - being surrounded by girls beating their heads against the wall and injuring themselves.

"The forced inpatient experience was a nightmare and I wish no one else has to go through it," Rodriguez said.

Although mental health review officers (MHROs) are appointed in each Wisconsin county and may be petitioned by a minor to obtain mental health services without parental consent, Loudenbeck said she couldn't find any evidence the process had been used.

Understanding that it was difficult for unaccompanied youth to navigate the system, Stuht and Loudenbeck worked together to connect Rodriguez's care team at school to the correct people at the county to get the process started so Rodriguez could get help.

In December of 2017, school staff and Rodriguez met with the Rock County MHRO Stephen Meyer, who helped convince Rodriguez's father to sign off on his daughter's counseling.

After learning more about the MHRO process, Loudenbeck and Stuht agreed an emergency waiver to serve as a bridge between the time it takes to petition an MHRO - up to 21 days - would be appropriate in cases where youth may be a danger to themselves or others. Loudenbeck said she drafted a bill to help youth while balancing parental rights.

Stuht, Rodriguez, school social worker Alyssa Boutelle and graduation coach for unaccompanied and homeless teens Jessica Moehn went to the initial hearing on Jan. 30 where they spoke in front of the Assembly Committee for Mental Health. Moen and Rodriguez returned to Madison on Feb. 5 to testify in front of a Senate Committee for Education. The bill passed in committee and in the Assembly and Senate before being signed by the governor.

The new law gives a minor a 30-day window to get outpatient mental health services right away without a parental signature. During the 30 days, the youth or someone acting on his or her behalf can petition the court to for services.

Loudenbeck noted the law also requires service providers to make an effort to obtain written parental consent. It also prohibits the provider from admitting a minor to an inpatient treatment facility and prohibits the provider from prescribing medication without parental consent.

Stuht said the next step is to get a similar bill passed for increasing access to medical and shelter services for unaccompanied youth under age 18 who can't get a parental signature.

"I am very passionate about working to provide homeless and unaccompanied youth with the tools and resources they need to be successful," Loudenbeck said. "Alyssa was so brave to come to Madison and share her story. She, Stuht, Moen and Boutelle have truly made a difference for youth in Wisconsin who don't have the kind of support at home that they need. I am really proud of this bill and hope we can be successful again with increasing access to shelter and medical care next session."

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