L.A. Uses iPads to Touch the Minds of Vulnerable Youth

In an effort to provide youth who are at risk of entering foster care mental health counseling, Los Angeles County is betting on computers and iPads.

Last week, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved a $547,500 plan in which the Department of Mental Health (DMH) will contract with the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work to provide tele-mental health services to youth ages 12-to-21. Tele-health is a growing field in which services like therapy sessions are conducted using video-conferencing technology.

“This is a novel way to help at-risk youth,” said Supervisor Mark-Ridley Thomas in a statement. “The program makes critically needed early intervention easily accessible and convenient to youth, by using technology familiar to them.”

Under the plan, DMH social workers­–working out of “medical hubs” at county hospitals like the sprawling Los Angeles County-USC facility in Boyle Heights–will refer youth with “moderate psychiatric symptoms” to USC’s Telehealth program. USC’s program has served more than 1,500 clients in the past three years, according to a letter submitted by DMH to the Board of Supervisors on March 2.

“The telehealth program will be the first and only completely virtual, home based mental health service program for youth at risk of being detained by [the Department of Children and Family Services] DCFS,” the letter reads.

USC anticipates serving 225 youth during the 18 months of the contract term, according to the “statement of work” it submitted to the county. Those youngsters will participate in up to 26 weekly sessions, and USC will provide iPads for those without access to laptops, tablets or personal computers. The therapists will be a mix of licensed clinical social workers and masters of social work interns.

Toni Heineman is the executive director of A Home Within, a national non-profit organization that links up foster youth with volunteer therapists. While Heineman was not involved in L.A. County’s new tele-mental health plan, her organization is working to get one of its own off the ground.

“The technology can be a barrier in that there is a distance,” she said. “But it can also facilitate a relationship because of that distance.” Using a term borrowed from chemistry to describe diluting liquids, Heineman added: “In some ways it can give the youth the ability to titrate that distance.”

Because of its focus on youth who have been identified by the child protection system but are being served while still in their homes, USC anticipates that the program could help keep some kids from ever entering foster care.

“Ultimately, this model should result in a reduction in the number of youth that are placed in foster care,” the School of Social Work’s statement of work reads.

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