, Volume 3, Issue 4, pp 247-256

Early Identification of Children At Risk for Costly Mental Health Service Use

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Abstract

Children and adolescents with serious and persistent conduct problems often require large public expenditures. Successfully diverting one high risk child from unfortunate outcomes may result in a net savings to society of nearly $2 million, not to mention improving the life of that child and his or her family. This figure highlights the potential of prevention, which often rests on the ability to identify these children at a young age. This study examined the ability of a short conduct-problems screening procedure to predict future need for mental health assistance, special education services, and the juvenile justice system during elementary schoolages. The screen was based on teacher and parent report of child behavioralhabits in kindergarten, and was used to identify children as either at risk or not at risk for behavioral problems. Service outcomes were derived from a service-use assessment administered to parents at the end of the sixth grade, while special education information was gathered through a survey of school records. Study participants (463 kindergarten children; 54% male, 44% African American) were from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in four diverse communities across the United States. Results indicated that, while controlling for demographic background variables, the risk indicator strongly predicted which children would require services related to conduct disorder or behavioral/emotional problems. Additional analyses revealed that the dichotomous high risk indicator was nearly as strong as the continuous screening variable in predicting the service-use outcomes, and that the screening of both parents and teachers may not be necessary for determining risk status.