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Good afternoon, Chairwoman Jasey and members of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools and thank you for the opportunity to testify before your panel today. My name is Christine Norbut Beyer, and I am the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families. I want to thank the Chair and the Joint Committee members for their interest in the New Jersey Statewide Student Services Network, or NJ4S.  The Department is eager to launch this innovative, statewide model for student wellness.

Right now in New Jersey, and around the country, we are facing a youth mental health crisis that requires innovation and bold new thinking. The United States Surgeon General recently issued a report, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” which highlights how the pandemic has altered the world that children and youth knew before. In New Jersey, DCF commissioned a study from Rutgers and the Eagleton Institute of Politics to learn more about families during the pandemic. That study told us that 34% of parents in our state – that translates to roughly 340,000 families – report that their school-aged child has experienced prolonged episodes of poor or only fair mental health. We know from these and other sources that the lasting trauma caused by COVID has created some deep scars on our state’s collective psyche.

It's clear that youth mental health is a public health emergency. And a statewide crisis like this demands statewide solutions. Right now, we have an extraordinary opportunity and an unprecedented responsibility to ensure access and equity in support for youth mental wellness.

That’s what NJ4S offers.

The hub and spoke model we have proposed allows for 15 hubs that would organize and administer services to the schools and communities to which they are assigned. A common misconception that we’ve heard since we announced this concept is that students would need to travel or be transported to the hub for services, but that is not at all accurate. As we described in the concept paper we released a few weeks ago, NJ4S services will continue to be available locally, in schools - and other trusted local sites, like libraries and community centers. There is no transportation barrier associated with NJ4S. In fact, the hub might not even have a physical location -- it is simply a provider that acts as a connector of services to the spaces that need them.

Schools are and will continue to be a primary space for prevention and intervention services for youth. But so are community centers and faith-based organizations, libraries, and even homes. Not every youth wants to access services in school, and they should have the option to access services where they feel most comfortable and physically and emotionally safe. NJ4S allows for choices and options for service delivery that don’t currently exist for youth and their families.

And through NJ4S, youth and their families will have a direct voice in this system to tell their hubs where they want services and where they can easily access them. NJ4S expands the options for service delivery locations by adding to schools, not removing them from the system.

We’re creating a statewide network of supports for students and their families offered to all New Jersey school districts that recognizes the whole family, because children in crisis sometimes have families in crisis. It is an efficient platform for deeper investment that provides the ability to leverage existing resources and fully support social and emotional health and learning of students in New Jersey.

The hubs will dispatch a standard set of supports and services to schools, libraries, community centers, and other local spokes, with local adaptations, that leverage the best approaches the field has to offer, so that no matter where a New Jersey student lives, they can be assured of the ability to access a core set of high-quality services and programming. This is a groundbreaking proposal, and one that is getting positive attention from leaders across the country.

We’re using a tried-and-true model that increases efficiency in service delivery, that reduces duplication of effort, utilizes evidence-based programming – which is what the federal government looks for in the provision of grants and other funding streams – and includes trackable, sharable metrics with clear and transparent outcome data. NJ4S will use evidence-based approaches to both prevention – meaning efforts to prevent bullying, violence, substance use, or mental health problems before they occur, as well as intervention – meaning intervening after a young person is already in distress.

Evidence-based programs are interventions that have been rigorously evaluated by an independent third-party to demonstrate effectiveness. They have shown not only to work, but also not to cause harm. Evidence-based approaches exist in public health, in social service, and mental health treatment among other fields. When we face a crisis of this magnitude, we need to be sure we are using approaches that are effective. Because we don’t have time to lose. Evidence-based programs and resources offer consistent, clear criteria and metrics, and can be replicated with fidelity to a proven model. One example of an evidence-based program is Familias Unidas, a family-centered drug use and sexual risk behavior prevention program designed specifically for Hispanic youth and their families. It helps empower parents to speak with their teen children about how to prevent drug use and sexual risk behaviors. The program has clearly articulated goals, a description of essential program components, and has been evaluated and validated though multiple randomized controlled trials.

In addition to providing these prevention services as well as mental health services for students, programming through NJ4S will connect with the broader infrastructure of mental health supports this Administration has been building and expanding since 2018, including, just briefly, the Children’s System of Care, the DREAMS program, suicide prevention programs, and the recently launched 988 system.  

The New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services Network will:  

  • Create a statewide network of supports for students and their families offered to all New Jersey school districts.

  • Meet students where they are by providing services in schools as a well of variety of other locations such as community centers, libraries, and via telehealth. The specific delivery locations will be determined with local input, to meet local need.

  • Recognize the whole family – in addition to the individual student – as the focus of support and to increase academic achievement as well as emotional safety and wellbeing.

  • Provide a standard set of supports and services, with local adaptations, that leverage the best approaches the field has to offer, so that no matter where a New Jersey student lives, they can be assured of the ability to access a core set of high-quality services and programming.

  • Involve communities in design and implementation and integrate programming within the communities, with schools at the center of a broader network of available services and supports for students.

  • Intentionally integrate with existing statewide and community-based services and supports for school-aged youth, to maximize public funding and avoid duplication of services.

Hubs will employ key staff and may be implemented by social service agencies, selected through a competitive RFP process either singly or in partnership with other social service agencies. Social service agencies that currently provide school linked services will be eligible and encouraged to apply to be a hub. DCF will work with the statewide network of hubs to deploy training and facilitate connections to other areas of the statewide youth mental health infrastructure.

With respect to the current School Based Youth Services programs, we know that they are valued by and valuable for the 86 schools in which they operate. Their positive impact on the youth they serve is the inspiration for NJ4S, and what we hope to make available to the other 2,400 schools in New Jersey which currently do not receive any level of SBYS support from the state. However, due to budget and program constraints of the current model, School Based Youth Services cannot be scaled to statewide capacity.

And, frankly, that presents an equity issue. A recent report from NJ Policy Perspective shows that access to mental health supports for Black students has decreased over the last decade. “Black youth suicide among 10- to 19-year-old boys has soared 60% since 2017, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Suicide has also plagued Black girls, with a 59% increase between 2013 and 2019. Black children younger than 13 are now twice as likely to die by suicide compared to white children of the same age.” Those numbers are devastating and unacceptable and we have a responsibility and the opportunity now here in New Jersey to ensure that we are reaching all students with a baseline of supports to change these trends and save lives.

Right now, for example, the city of Newark has 64 public schools. Just one receives in-school supports. In Camden, there are 19 schools. Only 6 receive services. Help for some of our most at-risk youth is currently lacking in our schools. NJ4S will change that.  

We firmly believe that this is the right approach to benefit all of New Jersey’s students. We know that individuals who take the time to review the concept paper have found a lot to like about this concept. We also recognize that this is a large systemic change. As we launch the statewide network, we want to continue to have an open dialogue to ensure we are meeting student needs to the best of our abilities. In addition to the workgroup that has convened over the last year, we released the concept paper and opened it up for public comment because we want input on how we make this transition most effective. I know many of those here today have met with myself and my team and the Governor’s Office, both prior to the release of the concept paper and scheduled in the weeks since to discuss the proposal, answer questions, and offer clarifications. We continue to welcome those conversations. We will be releasing an FAQ document today on our website as well.

We have also made clear since we announced this proposal that we want to ensure continuity of supports for students throughout this transition. At the end of the day, we cannot shift our focus away from what students need during this unprecedented health crisis. NJ4S delivers the services and supports students need and deserve, delivering on the intended promise of SBYS for the remaining 2,400 schools not currently receiving SBYS programming. Thank you.

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