APA's Public Policy Office (PPO) staff are working on multiple fronts to ensure that children's mental health garners a place in federal legislation and policy--and APA members are helping them do it.

Among the biggest PPO wins is this year's enactment of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, named after the son of Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) who committed suicide last year. The bill authorizes funds for youth-suicide intervention and prevention programs as well as for mental and behavioral health services on college campuses.

Two other pieces of legislation that support children's mental health seem likely to pass in the near future, notes Ellen Garrison, PhD, APA's director of public interest policy. One, the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting action by the conference committee. APA has been making the case that psychological assessment is vital to diagnosing learning disabilities in children, and that the act must provide sufficient funds to ensure that children with disabilities receive the "free, appropriate public education" the law guarantees.

The other promising bill, the Family Opportunity Act, passed the Senate in May and is now awaiting House action. Sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the bill would allow middle-income families who do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford health insurance to gain mental health coverage for their children by tapping into Medicaid programs. "This would offer a much-needed safety net for these families," Garrison notes.

Other child-friendly measures stand a good chance of passage, but aren't likely to move until the next Congress, says Annie Toro, JD, PPO's senior legislative and federal affairs officer for children, youth and family issues. One, the Keeping Families Together Act, addresses the issue of parents having to relinquish legal custody of their children to gain mental health services for them. The situation, covered extensively in a 2003 Government Accountability Office study, arises when parents lack sufficient insurance to cover their child's mental health problems and can only gain access to appropriate services if their child becomes a ward of the child-welfare system.

In addition, PPO is advocating for an increase in funds for suicide-prevention programs, school counseling programs, child-abuse prevention and treatment programs, and child mental health services through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, among other initiatives. Training funds--to educate health- care providers about the mental health needs of children, particularly children of color--also are on PPO's agenda.

To help with these and other efforts, PPO is enlisting the aid of APA members. For example, as part of its coordinated advocacy campaigns on a range of public interest issues (see September Monitor), PPO staff have helped prepare members of APA's Committee on Children, Youth and Families to visit Senate offices in their home states to advocate for children's mental health topics.

To this end, a golden opportunity will arise in February when the APA divisions that deal with children's issues, including Div. 37 (Child, Youth, and Family Services), meet in Washington, D.C., for their annual midwinter meeting. PPO staff will be on board to prime the group with advocacy training.

"We want to get this agenda moving at the start of the 109th Congress, and this is the perfect opportunity to do it," Garrison says.