Funding for committee addressing children’s mental health put on hold

Two months after Georgia lawmakers passed the state’s $32.4 billion budget, approved funding for an independent committee tasked with identifying issues in mental health services for children—including those in the state’s foster care system—is among dozens of line items Governor Brian Kemp has put ‘on hold’.

Earlier this month, the governor issued 33 pages of vetoes and what are known as ‘disregards’. Reps for his office described ‘disregarded’ items as those that remain in the state’s budget but aren’t available to be used until the Office of Planning and Budget authorizes it.

"I’m with many other house members and senators that are very disappointed about specific issues we worked to get into the budget," State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said Tuesday. "For me, the MATCH committee was a top priority."

On page 10 of the 33-page document, the governor disregarded $1 million for MATCH—which was commissioned to identify gaps in mental health services for children in the state—including the roughly 9,000 children in state custody.

"We have to know why these children are ending up in hotels…we have to investigate and understand where the gaps are," she told FOX 5. 

Lawmakers created the Multi Agency Treatment for Children or MATCH committee during the 2022 legislative session with bi-partisan support and a co-sign from the governor. 

At a hearing the Behavioral Coordinating Council held earlier this month, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Kevin Tanner said he hoped the committee would play a role in solving issues within the foster care system—particularly ‘hoteling’ of children in state custody.

"We want to track all of those similar cases so we can bundle them and figure out how is this happening? Why are these kids ending up in this situation? We got to put the fire out, but we also need to solve what’s causing the fire to start with and hopefully with the coordination between the local groups, MATCH, this entity, and others, we will be able to get there," he said.

In response to questions about the move, a spokesperson for Kemp’s office said MATCH committee funds are ‘on hold’ until the members present a plan and budget, then pointed to uncertainty around funding for the state’s Medicaid program.

Despite the state reporting a budget surplus last year, Kemp’s office said the General Assembly’s budget left funding gaps that needed to be addressed.

"I think for many people it is concerning," Georgia Mental Health Policy Partnership Co-Founder Roland Behm told FOX 5.

It’s a decision Behm said leaves the future of Georgia’s most vulnerable kids uncertain.

"There is some indecision, some indecisiveness, some lack of forward momentum that has been lost and as I said that doesn’t serve some of our children with the most complex health challenges well," he explained.

Whether the blockage is temporary or permanent remains to be seen. Supporters of the MATCH committee said they hope if they do get the money, it’ll be sooner than later. 

A statement from Governor Kemp’s office reads: "Governor Kemp is proud to have signed the most transformative piece of legislation addressing mental health needs in the state’s history, which led to the creation of the MATCH Committee. We look forward to receiving the committee’s plan of action and detailed recommendations, so we can continue working together to improve the health and well-being of all Georgia’s children." 

Kemp’s office said those improvements include increasing funding for the foster care system two fiscal years in a row and signing legislation in 2021 that boosted the annual tax credit for new foster parents from $2,000 to $6,000 annually for the first five years after adoption.