Pritzker launches children’s behavioral health initiative

Pritzker launches children’s behavioral health initiative

Goal is to expand services to address youth mental health crisis

Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – Citing what he called a nationwide crisis in children’s mental health, Gov. JB Pritzker on Friday unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul and expand the availability of children’s behavioral health services in Illinois.

“Long before COVID-19 turned our world upside down, our nation was facing a mental health crisis,” Pritzker said at an event at the West40 Regional Safe School in the west Chicago suburb of Maywood. “Nearly one in five children experienced a mental health disorder, from depression to anxiety to ADHD. But only 20 percent of them received the behavioral health care that they needed.”

In March of last year, Pritzker launched what was called the Children's Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative, a project that involved six state agencies and other outside entities that deal with children’s mental health. Its task was to build a coordinated, interagency approach to ensuring young people with significant behavioral health needs receive the community and residential services they need.

The results of that effort were released in a recent report that examined data from multiple state agencies to assess the need for services, determine which populations are most affected by the crisis and come up with a plan for coordinating state resources to meet those needs.

“It's a blueprint for transformation of the behavioral health system for Illinois’ youth,” Pritzker said. “This is an unprecedented interagency effort that will provide more and better treatment and save lives.”

Although a recent study by Mental Health America found Illinois ranks 13th-best overall on a set of factors related to youth mental health care, the Transformation Initiative analysis found that 40 percent of young people in Illinois who experienced major depressive episodes were unable to receive mental health care.

Youth in care of the Department of Children and Family Services who need inpatient residential treatment for their condition are disproportionately Black, the report found. As well, the report found a quarter of all the beds at residential treatment facilities are unavailable due to understaffing.

It also found that the state has a fragmented system of delivering mental and behavioral health services, with different state agencies providing services under different standards and often paying different reimbursement rates for similar services.

“Multiple state agencies operate programs that provide services to support children’s behavioral health, but there is minimal systematic coordination and no holistic, developmentally informed approach to meeting youth needs,” the report stated. “With no central point of entry to help families navigate, children and families must access services differently across agencies, meet agency-specific eligibility requirements, and maintain access to services with minimal supports.”

To address that issue, Pritzker said, the Transformation Initiative developed and pilot tested a new online portal where people seeking assistance for youth could connect with the services they need. He described it as “a kind of a front door for stakeholders seeking assistance for youth with the greatest needs.”

As of Jan. 30, after only a few months of operation, Pritzker said, 41 percent of the cases that came through that portal had already been connected with interventions, placements and services.

“So with a successful pilot underway and under our belt, we are now going to build out this more robust care portal for children and families seeking behavioral health services,” he said. “And we're adding to it a hotline for assistance and specialized guidance for those beginning the process of accessing care.”

The Transformation Initiative report also spells several other recommendations for improving services. Those include standardizing reimbursement rates for services so providers are compensated consistently; offering universal screening in schools and health care settings for behavioral health problems so they are detected early; and expanding eligibility for current programs and developing new service types.

“Our ability to provide the behavioral health support that we desperately need for our kids and adults hinges on growing our behavioral healthcare workforce. We have to do it,” state Rep. Lindsey LaPointe, D-Chicago, a former social worker, said during the event.

As part of his budget proposal released last week, Pritzker asked for $22.8 million to begin to fund and implement the Transformation Initiative’s recommendations.

Also on Friday, Pritzker signed an executive order establishing a new office of Children's Behavioral Health Transformation Initiative Chief to lead the interagency effort to implement that plan. At the event in Maywood, he announced that Dana Weiner, a child welfare expert at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall who chaired the Transformation Initiative, would fill that role.


Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide, as well as hundreds of radio and TV stations. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.



Peter Hancock

Peter HancockPeter Hancock

Peter was one of the founding reporters with Capitol News Illinois. A native of the Kansas City area, he has degrees in political science and education from the University of Kansas.

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