Tag Archive | "funding"

State Pulls Funding from Highbridge’s only Mental Health Clinic for Children

One Monday in October, therapist Shlomit Levy was called to a classroom at I.S. 313, a middle school on Webster Avenue in the Bronx where she has worked for the last four years. A student was causing disruptions, storming out of class.

The clinician from a nearby mental health clinic, Astor at Highbridge, took the student aside for a two-hour therapy session. The student was able to return to class with the help of Levy, but not for long. Half an hour later, she had lost control again.

In her emergency session, Levy discovered the student’s family was not cooperating with her therapy. If Levy had been able to see the child earlier, the crisis might not have happened.

But last year, the state pulled its Clinic Plus funding that required I.S. 313 to have parents fill out mental health assessments for their children. Now that the program is gone, the clinician has no information about which children may need help.

The result is that Levy now in October has only one new student patient, at a time when she usually has at least 10. “I’m missing a lot of information,” she said.

Shlomit Levy, a clinician for Astor at Highbridge in I.S. 313, is seeing far fewer children ever since the clinic lost its state funding. (VALENITNE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

Levy’s referral numbers from schools in no way reflects the area’s need. The only mental health outpatient clinic for children and teenagers in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, Astor at Highbridge  serves more than 400 clients ages 2 to 21. Patients are seen in its Shakespeare Avenue clinic and inside six local public schools. Its future is uncertain in a community where 52 percent of the population has already received mental health treatment or counseling. In 2006, mental illness hospitalization rates were significantly higher in Highbridge and Morissania than in the rest of the Bronx and New York City.

Levy said the children she sees are suffering from trauma and anxiety among other issues. Some of them have lost a family member to gang violence, or have been sexually abused. Others have parents who are either arrested, incarcerated, or deported. Levy has had patients who lost all contact with their deported parent. Undocumented, these students can’t leave the country to go visit them.

“All these children have such challenging life environments,” Levy said. The therapist is convinced five clinicians like her are needed in I.S. 313. “And we would all be very busy.

The end of Clinic Plus not only curtailed services for needy children, but also created a greater financial problem for the clinic. It came at a time when Astor at Highbridge is being squeezed by yet another cut in state funding. Since 2010, New York State has gradually reduced its direct support for Astor’s two outpatient clinics in the Bronx by 25 percent per year. The same day Levy was called to P.S. 313, the clinic received word that a third 25 percent reduction would go into effect next year, totaling 75 percent lost revenue in three years.  The cuts mean clinicians are under pressure to increase the number of clients who bring in Medicaid or private insurance money.

Astor at Highbridge opened the satellite clinics in schools in 2007. The clinic now has six clinicians who work in neighboring schools. Astor was keeping these services afloat after Clinic Plus money ended, yet times are difficult.

“A couple of my schools want more clinicians,” said Zory Wentt, program director at the Astor at Highbridge clinic. “Do we need it? Yes. Are we going to get it? No. We don’t have enough funding for that.”

Wentt has worked a Astor at Highbridge since it opened seven years ago. It remains the only mental health clinic in the area. It was difficult at first to convince residents to overcome their fears and seek therapy, she said. A strong stigma attached to mental health needs was a barrier.

“A lot of children need mental health services. Yet they have never received it,”  Wentt said.

A book Levy and other clinicians use to help students in schools. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

At the clinic, therapists see children with conditions ranging from attention deficit-hyperactivity or oppositional defiant disorders to those with bipolar or suicidal symptoms. Violence in the area spills over into their clinic. Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders are common illnesses.

“We had a little girl whose father was shot right in front of her,” Wentt said. “We have a lot of death cases, along with children being placed in foster care or suffering from sexual trauma.”

In a neighborhood where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to a study by Queens College, lack of resources can become a triggering factor when it comes to mental illness. The majority of the clinic’s patients are low-income, Hispanic and African-American residents. Eighty-five percent of them are on Medicaid and 5 percent have no insurance. Only 10 percent can afford a private health insurance. Revenue from these insurances is now Astor’s only chance to survive financially.

“Funding is a challenge, we’re constantly out there seeking private funding,” said Sonia Barnes-Moorhead, the executive vice president of the Children’s Foundation of Astor. Astor Services for Children and Families operates 12 sites in the Bronx, including two outpatient clinics. Clinicians have had to provide the same services in a way that could decrease costs.

Astor at Highbridge has been affected by what appears to be a national trend: increasing and larger cuts to mental health state funding.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than $1.8 billion has been cut from mental health state budgets in the U.S. from 2009 to 2011. At the same time, one in 10 American children have serious mental health conditions like depression or stress disorder. New York is the second state where cuts are the largest, after California. It cut $204.9 billion in its mental health budget between 2009 and 2012.

Three years ago, the New York State announced it would reduce its Comprehensive Outpatient Program Services (COPS) funding by 25 percent each year, until no funding is left. The state increased Medicaid rates to keep outpatient clinics afloat, but centers like Astor at Highbridge face direct consequences. The COPS funding represented half of the clinic budget, about $1.5 million.

Services at the clinic have been reorganized, and the workload has become barely manageable for some therapists. In 2009, a clinician had about 20 cases in total. Now, their caseloads vary between 50 and 55 people.

“We’ve had to work harder, we’ve instituted a business-like model in mental health services,” Wentt said.

The mental health clinic started to launch open access sessions four days a week for three hours in order to build their client base.

Things can easily become hectic during open access time. Children cry when their parents meet with the therapist, leaving them in the waiting area. Crises can erupt when children fight. A parent advocate and front desk receptionists are available to care for them, but they can often feel overwhelmed.

“With open access, no one is allowed to have a free moment when people come in,” Wentt said.

Zory Wentt has worked at the Astor at Highbridge clinic since 2005. (VALENTINE PASQUESOONE/The Bronx Ink)

With Astor’s limited staff, new clients are often left waiting. On Oct. 1, Nilza Martinez, a 26-year-old resident of Highbridge took advantage of open access hours. She and her 6-year-old child waited for  more than an hour, only to be given an appointment two weeks away. No Spanish-speaking clinician was available that Monday.

Her son’s pediatrician at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center had referred her to the Astor clinic. Her son, she said, was showing extreme anxiety about sleeping, and being left alone.

Clinicians said their heavy caseloads prevent them from being entirely available during open access services. Every week, they need to have an average of 25 billable hours of direct contact with their clients to keep the clinic alive. Some of them say they have to schedule appointments almost every hour to maintain this requirement.

“There is a lot of pressure since we have a lot of paperwork and accountability on top of the work you do in sessions with the children and families you’re working with,” said Audrey Williamson, a 26-year-old social work intern working as a full clinician at the clinic since September. She works 21 hours a week at Astor at Highbridge, besides her classes at Columbia University School of Social Work. She is required to see her clients for at least 10 billable hours.

“Yet I think the pressure of helping and assisting children and their families is much bigger,” Williamson said. “You have lives in your hands for the most part.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Health, Southern BronxComments (0)

Taking Advil to schools

Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner reads to kids at the re-opening of P.S. 130's library, funded by the Advil Congestion Relief Project. (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Advil Congestion Relief)

These days, a village isn’t enough to raise a child. Multinational corporations have had to step in.

For six years, students at Longwood’s Abram Stevens Hewitt School didn’t have a functioning library. With the help of Advil, a Pfizer product, P.S. 130’s pre-K through fifth graders now have a newly renovated space, complete with new books, computers and iPads—as well as a new plaque that reads: “This Library Was Proudly Revitalized By: The Advil ® Congestion Relief Project.”

After the opening festivities, this plaque and Advil Congestion Relief notebooks are all that's left of the company's logo at P.S. 130. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

As schools nationwide watch budgets dwindle, for-profit companies have offered a hand. However, critics see gifts from these companies not as goodwill, but as a way of marketing to children.

School officials at P.S. 130 competed for and won the Advil grant, which was facilitated through The Fund For Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with the New York City Department of Education to find private funding for schools. It is part of a growing public school/private partnership initiative championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It also highlights the need for schools to branch out into the private sector as government funding decreases.

No study tracks the amount for-profit companies invest in public schools because schools don’t necessarily have to go through a governing organization to receive these funds. But anecdotally, the practice is becoming more common, according to Faith Boninger, a research associate at the National Education Policy Center, a unit based in the University of Colorado at Boulder that examines research on public schools.

In a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 22 that included giant Advil Congestion Relief scissors and a reading of a Hank Aaron biography by Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner, students viewed their newly renovated library for the first time.

What did they think?

“It’s good!” 5-year-old Angel shouted the following week, holding an Advil notebook and ducking behind his mother, Mayra Ocasio, outside the school.

Before the Advil grant,  the library consisted of a large room with only four computers. The checkout system involved writing students’ names and books on an index card, then crossing them off upon return. Many of the books were outdated, with non-fiction more than 10 years old. Science books still included the now-discredited planet Pluto and sports books heralded bygone heroes such as Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.

After the renovation, the library boasts iPads, computers, a flat-screen TV for computer instruction, a high-tech image projector, new furniture, a computerized catalog system and illustrations inspired by famous kids’ books such as Where the Wild Things Are. Many more pictures illustrate the $20,000 worth of new books, from Dr. Seuss titles like Oh, The Places You’ll Go! for younger readers to the more adult Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

Principal Lourdes Velasquez had long wanted to fix the library, which had been without a regular library teacher since the last one retired six years ago.

“Literacy was something we needed to focus on wholeheartedly,” Velasquez said from the school’s bustling office. “The library was the central hub to spearheading that.”

P.S. 130's new library features new technology, artwork and $20,000 worth of new books. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

Last year Velasquez hired David Levin, a longtime teacher at the school, as the library teacher. At the time, the library was used mostly as a teacher center.

Velasquez and Levin believed an updated library would help meet the many challenges—from high-needs students to low test performance—of the South Bronx school, which is located in the poorest congressional district in America. They turned to the Department of Education, which connected them to nonprofit The Fund for Public Schools and in turn the Advil grant program.

Jennifer Kokell, a spokesperson for Pfizer, which manufactures Advil, said P.S. 130 was one of two initial projects for the Advil Congestion Relief Project, which is now accepting applications for another round of donations. The other recipient was the Chicago Department of Transportation, which received bike-lane-sized snow plows to alleviate traffic caused by winter snowstorms.

The Fund for Public Schools does not track partnerships between businesses and schools because many of those partnerships happen independent of the fund. Public Outreach Coordinator Kate Wagoner said corporations frequently partner with the city’s schools, citing Bank of America’s literacy initiative as an example.

But critics say corporate gifts are simply a way to market to kids who have no choice.

“We don’t market drugs to kids for good reason,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. The packaging for Advil Congestion Relief says it’s not suitable for children under 12—every student at P.S. 130 is below that age. Golin’s organization blames childhood marketing for a slew of lifelong problems, from consumerism and conformity to eating disorders and sexualization to violence and moral debasement.

“We have a responsibility in society that these kids in the South Bronx have a library without being exposed to commercial messages,” Golin said.

Pfizer’s Kokell said the South Bronx and Chicago were picked for the project “because literal congestion is an obstacle both of these communities face.” Kokell did not multiple questions on whether the initiative in the Bronx is in any way a form of marketing.

At the opening ceremony, the Yankees’ Gardner stood in front of giant posters with a repeating Advil Congestion Relief logo. Students received yellow Advil notebooks and pencils to take home. Advil employees wearing bright yellow Advil Congestion Relief shirts stocked new books on shelves.

After the ceremony, all that remained of Advil was the plaque. But Boninger, whose research says marketing to children undermines their critical-thinking abilities, said even mentioning the brand is “still a form of marketing.”

Boninger said commercial messages are frequently directed at schools because the children are a “captive audience” in an environment they trust, meaning they are highly susceptible to marketing there.

P.S. 130 officials said the gift is worth it.

“Coming in for one day, to me, I think it’s reasonable,” Levin, the library teacher said, amid the shelves of new books and tables of new technology. “Considering the spirit of the donation—it’s tremendous, I can’t find any fault in it.”

The updated library, he said, is necessary to develop a more “organic” way to learn reading, in which kids see it as fun instead of a job.

“My goal is to turn books into candy,” Levin said. “It’s not a book, it’s candy.”

Principal Velasquez doesn’t think marketing was on Advil’s agenda either. “Their agenda was to support a school and bring it resources,” she said.

Parents also seemed happy with the arrangement.

Angel, 5, walks home from P.S. 130 with his mother Mayra Ocasio and his Advil Congestion Relief notebook. (Rani Molla/THE BRONX INK)

Daisy Campbell, mother of Davonte, a 4-year-old pre-K student, said the good outweighed the bad.

“They really don’t know what Advil is yet,” she said, pushing a stroller away from the P.S. 130 after school. “They just see that someone helped them out to get a better education.”

Raquel Chaparro conceded that her 7- and 8-year-old sons, both named Angel, would be “more likely to recognize Advil.” But for now, neither of them knew what Advil was.

All of the children interviewed had their Advil notebooks with them, nearly a week after they received them.

According to Boninger, the message such gifts give is obvious.

“Send a letter to the parents but stay away from kids,” she said. “When kids are involved, it’s clearly an attempt to influence them.”

Posted in Education, Featured, Multimedia, Southern Bronx, VideoComments (0)

Renovation program unable to finish projects as funds dwindle

River Park Towers’ south building recently got new windows, but the north unit may not be so lucky if funding doesn’t come through.(C.J. SINNER/Bronx Ink)

Artelia Powell’s brand new-windows do more than keep out a persistent draft as the chilly November air creeps in. For the first time in 10 years, the 41-year-old mother of four can actually see outside. If the River Park Towers resident looks north to the housing complex’s other building, she can also see how lucky she is. Her neighbors must contend with 30-year-old windows, many broken and held together with spidery patterns of masking tape or covered with plastic wrapping.

River Park Towers, a dual-building behemoth for nearly 5,000 west Bronx residents, is sandwiched on a sliver of land between the Major Deegan Expressway and the Harlem River. The south tower received new windows, boilers, faucets and other upgrades over the last three months thanks to subsidies from the Weatherization Assistance Program, a federally-funded nonprofit that works to increase energy efficiency in low-income households, but north tower residents may not be as fortunate.

The program was able to take on large projects like River Park Towers for the first time when stimulus funds tripled their budget in 2009. Now, the stimulus money is spent and the federal program that feeds weatherization program coffers across the country is facing additional budget cuts. As a result, construction on the north tower, and other subsequent large-scale projects, may not be possible.

“Right now, you’d need a crystal ball to figure out what’s going to happen to the lives of a lot of people,” said Fran Fuselli, who has been director of the weatherization program since it began in 1983.

Before 2009, the program operated on $2 million a year, Fuselli said. With stimulus funds, the program had $12 million to hire and educate new workers and provide energy efficient upgrades as many dwellings as they could in two years. Two years – that was part of the deal.

In that time, the program improved 1,800 homes, Fuselli said. The crowded program office features three whiteboards with charts and lists of addresses. Red check marks note which locations are complete.

Before their budget tripled with stimulus funds, they’d been able to do 300 apartments every year and their waiting list was three years long, partially because buildings with hundreds of units – River Park Towers has 1,600 apartments, for example – would have quickly eaten up the annual budget. Fuselli approximated the average cost of weatherizing one home or apartment at $6,500. For both buildings at River Park Towers, she estimated a total bill of around $5 million – more than one third of their entire stimulus allotment.

The proposed cuts to the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which funds programs like this in nearly every state – Fuselli’s program is one of three based in the Bronx – would bring their capacity to 150 units a year.

Since 2009, the federal program has received $5.1 billion to disperse among municipal weatherization groups nationwide. The 2012 budget proposal would cut 2012 funding in half, to $2.57 billion.

Less money also means fewer workers. Fuselli hired and trained 12 additional staff members in 2009, tripling the workforce. Taleigh Smith was hired as an outreach coordinator because of her experience as a community organizer in the South Bronx. She said she’s worried about the 19- and 20-year-olds who were specifically trained for “green jobs” like inspecting homes for inefficiencies.

“They got the training, but they didn’t get a career, which is what was supposed to happen,” Smith said. She paused. “I mean, I keep saying ‘they,’ but my job is on the line, too.”

Fuselli said she already laid off one person, with several more slated to be let go by the end of the year.

As for River Park Towers, Fuselli said they went into the deal knowing they’d only be able to do one building right away, but expected to get money to renovate the second tower from the state government, which was holding a few million dollars for leftover weatherization projects. What she didn’t plan for was a stipulation in eligibility that said the work already had to be underway. By the time Fuselli and her team realized the caveat, she said, it was too late to get started with building inspections, planning and contracting.

“We still did it because we figured doing half was better than not doing any,” Fuselli said. “Those people had needs, and it’s an impetus to do the other half. Walking away from all 1,600 units would have been a disservice.”

She said they’re looking for other partnerships with Con-Ed and various green jobs initiatives to piece the funds together to finish River Park Towers. Fuselli estimated the total cost to renovate both buildings at roughly $5 million, noting that with complexes this size, the owners commit to paying at least 25 percent of that cost.

It winds up being a good deal for landlords, Fuselli said, because they get the upgrades at a fraction of the price, energy costs go down and their tenants’ rent bills don’t go up. Otherwise, landlords can’t afford important fixes without raising rent prices and losing tenants.

“In the 70s, you could walk from Southern Boulevard to Crotona and not find an occupied building, all because owners couldn’t get mortgages and they had to triage what they’d spend their money on, and it became abandonment or arson for profit,” the born-and-raised Bronxite said. “I think what people don’t understand is how close we are again to that reality.”

Leon Johnson, president of the tenant’s association at River Park Towers, said north tower residents are already upset about the imbalance of the south tower’s 43 floors of perfectly identical, geometric windows and the north tower’s drafty and leaky ones. He said some residents came home after Hurricane Irene to find flooded apartments. Still, he said he’s confident that some form of funding will come through.

“Worst case scenario? I can’t even think about it,” he said. “It would be a travesty. We have 1,600 units. It would be a shame to leave 800-plus people out in the cold.”

Posted in Featured, Housing, Northwest BronxComments (0)