‘The Timing is Horrific’ — NJ Budget Cuts In-school Mental Health Services
Gov. Phil Murphy's nine-month spending plan for New Jersey completely erases funding for in-school programs that have helped students since the 1980s with mental health, employment, pregnancy prevention, drug abuse education and more.
Given this is the most unique start to a school year in our lifetimes, during which students will need support to focus and succeed, a slash in funding couldn't come at a worse time, according to supporters of the School Based Youth Services Program.
"I think the timing is horrific," said Lauren Balkan, director of Pathways School Based Youth Services Program at Carteret High School. "Our kids need support ... They need so much right now, and cutting the place where they're comfortable getting that, to me, is cruel."
About 40% of the high school's students directly use the program's services each year, Balkan said. Statewide, 90 or so programs at schools serve approximately 30,000 young people.
Balkan said her local district will attempt to help support the program financially but programs elsewhere in the state aren't getting that kind of help.f
"Most programs will be closing their doors," Balkan said.
According to Murphy's revised 2021 budget proposal, the Office of School Linked Services is getting $0 in the nine months beginning Oct. 1. The office, which is located within the Department of Children and Families and handles the SBYS program, received $15.29 million in 2020, and $4,969 in the three-month budget approved in June.
"This is out of touch with what the times demand to keep our kids safe," said state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, R-Morris. "I'm extremely concerned that schools don't seem to have been told by the Murphy administration these state-funded resources won't be available when they need them most."
Murphy would not specifically comment on the funding decision when asked about it during a Wednesday afternoon briefing but he did say "this is an extraordinarily challenging budget."
Jason Butkowski, a spokesman for the Department of Children and Families, said while the proposed budget eliminates funding for these services, it also invests $45 million in the NJ Children's System of Care, which offers services to all youth in the state, not just those enrolled in a school with SBYS programs in place.
"COVID-19 has changed the landscape for so many families — and we are convinced that what we need to provide now is a comprehensive, statewide approach to children's behavioral health care that is available to all families, and in the setting that works best for the family — be that at home or in a community location of the family's choosing," Butkowski said.