At 12, Chloe Ostenson was desperate enough to consider suicide. The Bradenton teen was depressed over the death of her father and intense bullying in middle school. "I felt like killing myself," she said. "No one seemed to like me."
Her mother, Karen Lynch, sought help through the Children's Community Action Team at Manatee Glens in Bradenton, a behavioral health hospital that also offers outpatient services.
A year later, Chloe is an A student who volunteers for a community theater and "feels like I can accomplish anything."
The CAT team provides intensive 24/7 coaching and treatment for youths with behavioral health and substance abuse issues. The program has been so effective for kids such as Chloe that the state Legislature is using it as a model for a new, nearly $7 million initiative to fund CAT teams in 10 communities, including in Pinellas and Hillsborough.
The Legislature is spending $675,000 for each team in the pilot program, starting this summer. Each CAT team, with roughly 10 full- and part-time members, usually includes a psychiatrist, a nurse, therapist, a team leader and mentors.
Their roles are far-reaching, from crisis counseling at 3 a.m. to searching for tutoring or outpatient drug treatment. The team might help a family find scholarships or financial assistance for outlets like dance lessons or summer camp. And mentors often evolve into advocates, confidants and companions.
The teams in Pinellas and Hillsborough are still being formed. The Pinellas program will be run by Children's Services for Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services. Both agencies are part of Gracepoint Wellness. The Hillsborough program is being managed by Mental Health Care Inc.
The program is "an opportunity for state government to be proactive," said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who helped deliver state funding. He calls the concept a "new lease on life" for children and their families.
CAT is also considered a cost-effective way to keep kids out of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
The county-funded Manatee Glens program now serves children and teens ages 5 to 17, working with 45 families at any one time and roughly 75 during the year. The new pilot teams in the state will work with kids ages 11 to 21, which will help young adults "who are one of the hardest populations to treat," said Morgan Bender, the Manatee Glens CAT team leader.
Kids often wind up in CAT because no other type of help was working.
Lynch said she was so afraid her daughter would hurt herself, she had her committed under the Baker Act twice. The Manatee Glens hospital's crisis unit referred Chloe to the CAT team.
"I went to bed every night crying," Lynch said. "But I wasn't going to lose her. I was screaming for help."
Referrals can come from a variety of sources, including an outpatient mental health or substance abuse treatment provider, a hospital, the juvenile justice system, schools or physicians. Parents can also contact the team, which evaluates each case, but generally the program works with kids who have already tried other types of treatment without success.
Bob Sleczkowski, director of children's community services at Mental Health Care in Tampa, said the CAT team can "tailor services to fit each family's needs. Every family is different."
One key to the program's success is that it also works with a teen's siblings. "A child who has behavior problems affects the whole family," said Maria Roberts, senior director of Children's Services for Personal Enrichment through Mental Health Services.
For Chloe, a major breakthrough was moving her to a supportive alternative school called Just for Girls.
Mentors often picked her up after school, taking her out, sometimes just for yogurt or a trip to a skate park. They listened to her. They also encouraged her to get involved with a Manatee theater company, where she now volunteers.
Now 13, Chloe says, "I'm not that desperate kid in need anymore. I'm not afraid to say who I am."
Rochelle Koff can be reached at [email protected]