Yolanda’s bill could soon become law

Rich Harbert

Help for children suffering with mental health issues comes too late for Yolanda Torres. The local girl testified before state legislators about the need for improved state services but sadly took her own life before help arrived.

But state legislators remembered the 16-year-old as the bill headed to the Senate for discussion this week, dedicating the Act Relative to Children’s Mental Health to Torres’ memory.

“I think she’d be very proud,” Mary Ann Tufts, Torres’ mother, said Tuesday. “She always wanted to be famous, as most young teenaged girls want. When she entered a room, she lit it up. She’s still doing that, through not in the way she ever imagined.”

Flanked by state senators and representatives, Tufts spoke during a press conference in Boston this week of the challenges her daughter struggled with in her short life.

One of three sisters adopted by Tufts and her husband 14 years ago, Torres suffered from a bipolar disorder with psychotic features. She testified about her condition before state legislators last year. She took her own life at home in January.

“She was a very good actress. She hid her despair and symptoms from everyone – her family, her parents, her sisters, her doctors, her therapist – because she saw the pain in people’s eyes, the stigmatizing and the misunderstanding. She learned how to hide it and bury it deep inside toward the end,” Tufts said.

The bill, which legislative leaders hope to pass by the end of this year’s session, would improve the systems of care for children living with mental needs by encouraging early identification with developmental, mental health and substance abuse needs. It would give early education settings and schools tools to deal with mental health needs and implement policies for ensuring children are in the most appropriate and least restrictive settings.

The bill would also improve communication among state agencies to ensure coordinated care and improved insurance protections.

Senate President Therese Murray pledged Senate support for the bill, which recently won committee approval. The Senate was set to take up the bill Tuesday. House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi vowed swift House action following Senate passage.

Matt Noyes, children’s health care coordinator for Health Care for All, one of a handful of sponsors of the bill, said the legislation will have practical solutions to a growing problem.

A recent survey, Noyes said, showed Massachusetts ranking ninth in the nation for preschool expulsions. Most of the problems, he said, stemmed from mental health and behavioral problems.

The bill would identify children with mental health problems earlier and help remove obstacles like disputes over payments for transfers to residential treatment facilities, Noyes said.

Tufts said just bringing the issue to the table, the dinner table this is, will help. “We talk about erectile dysfunction, colon cancer and AIDS,” Tufts said. “It’s dinner table conversation, but we don’t want to talk about mental illness, particularly in children. If it was considered an illness of the brain it would be much better for everyone.”

Tufts said Monday’s show of support at the State House has her hopeful that the bill will win passage before the legislature adjourns July 31. And when it does, Yolanda Torres will be looking down, smiling.

“She loved to be the center of attention. She’d be very proud but frustrated that it didn’t go through as soon as it should have,” Tufts said.