Invest in children: Pritzker plan expands mental health care; groups tout early education

Gov. JB Pritzker has announced a plan to expand and restructure mental health care for children in Illinois.

The plan is based on the Children’s Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative, a 92-page report in which six state agencies collaborated to produce.

Pritzker first introduced the initiative in March 2022.  The goal — give consistent guidance to families requesting behavioral and mental health services for their children and adolescents. The report serves as a blueprint to implement the plan which is expected to make its way to the governor’s desk in October.

The governor said during a news conference in Maywood Friday, the need to address the mental health crisis was revealed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found nearly half of U.S. children had suicidal thoughts during the pandemic.

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In Illinois, despite one in five children experiencing a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, Pritzker said only 20% received the health care they needed.

“As a governor, as a father, I refuse to let our youth fall through the cracks,” he said.

Chapin Hall child welfare expert Dana Weiner, named as the initiative’s director by Pritzker, told The Associated Press the program will clear up any confusion for parents who question how they should help their children.

“It’s all really geared toward creating an experience for families, where the boundaries between those different state agencies that are there to serve them are less visible,” she said.

Specifically, the initiative focuses on increased and earlier access to services while making mental health systems more adaptable to the needs of youth.

The agencies involved include the departments of Human Services, Health and Family Services, Juvenile Justice, Board of Education, and Public Health.

Pritzker’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2024 calls for a $22.8 million investment into the initiative. Nearly half of the funding will go to expanding the Comprehensive Community-Based Youth Services program.

CCBYS, a program serving at-risk 11 to 17-year-olds, would receive $10 million and in turn provide housing and crisis stabilization to those in need.

Childhood investment

The governor’s announcement preceded a virtual news conference of civic leaders focused on supporting the early childhood workforce.

Sangamon County State’s Attorney Dan Wright, speaking as a member of the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids program, said the investment was needed to improve public safety.

Increased investment today could prevent incarceration or violence in the future and save money down the road, he pointed out.

“We spend less money on the criminal justice system by making sure folks are ready for their adult life,” Wright said.

The state’s attorney expressed support for provisions focusing on childhood education in the governor’s $49.6 budget proposal.

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Pritzker’s proposal, now requiring action from the Illinois General Assembly, creates the $250 million Smart Start Illinois plan with the goals of expanding childcare service and eventually providing preschool access to every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in the state.

His tour of the state touting the program started last week in Springfield and concluded with stops in Rockford and the Quad Cities on Wednesday.

Contact Patrick Keck: 312-549-9340,,