University Settlement Advocates for Early Childhood Mental Health Funding

Yesterday Marilus Castellanos, Senior Program Director of Early Childhood Mental Health and Family Wellness at University Settlement, submitted testimony to the New York City Council’s Committee on Health and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction. Read the full testimony below.

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Testimony of University Settlement Before the New York City Council

FY 2021 Joint Preliminary Budget Hearing:
Committee on Health and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction

Council Member Mark Levine, Chair of the Committee on Health
Council Member Farah N. Louis,
Chair of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction

March 15, 2021

Presented by Marilus Castellanos, Senior Program Director of Early Childhood Mental Health and Family Wellness at University Settlement

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Thank you for convening this hearing. I’m Marilus Castellanos, the Senior Program Director of Early Childhood Mental Health and Family Wellness at University Settlement.

For 135 years, University Settlement has provided holistic programming for
families and communities across Manhattan and Brooklyn. Our programming
stretches from pregnancy to older adults, including prenatal and early
childhood education, afterschool programs, housing counseling and eviction
prevention, and mental health programs.

University Settlement’s Butterflies program provides a continuum of
supportive mental health services to children under five and their families who
are enrolled in our early childhood programs and live in our community. We
are grateful for City Council’s Children Under 5 Initiative, which supports
Butterflies. Last year, we received a 15% cut of our funding due to Covidrelated budget concerns. This year, we call on the Council, at minimum, to
restore the Children Under 5 Mental Health Initiative budget in full, and we
urge the Council to increase CU5 Mental Health Initiative funding to meet the
increased need for family and children’s mental health services across the
city.

Butterflies offers supportive mental health services to increase the
development of all enrolled children in our Early Childhood programming.
The families that Butterflies serves have experienced adversity, trauma,
complex social obstacles, mental health challenges, and other institutionalized
barriers that impact their ability to access quality resources and achieve their
full potential. To address these inequalities and effectively reach families most
in need, Butterflies works to support the capacity of those who interact with
children each day—teachers, parents, and childcare staff—equipping each of
them with skills and tools to effectively support children’s development.

Services are engaging, low-risk, culturally and linguistically appropriate, and designed to improve the social-emotional well-being of children.

The Butterflies Program is uniquely embedded into six of our programs across Brooklyn and Manhattan: Early Childhood Center (ECC), Children’s Corner Early Childhood Center (CC), Park Slope North Early Childhood Center (PSN), our Family Child Care Program (FCC) in Manhattan, our four Early Head Start Programs, including the Lower East Side EHS (EHS-LES), our EHS-FCC partnership in the Lower East Side (EHS-FCC), and our EHS program in East New York (EHS-ENY).

In March 2020, we transitioned our services to remote, virtual offerings, and our dedicated staff pivoted their work quickly while simultaneously supporting our families with this adjustment. We never stopped offering services; like so many other community-based organizations and care providers, we always found a way to reach the families that we knew needed us. Last year, our Butterflies program served over 600 children, 300 parents, and 110 teachers. With full funding, we would be able to reach even more families, children, and community members at a time when we know there is high need for mental health support.

In the fall, our Early Childhood Division moved to a blended in-person and virtual model. We have retrofitted our classrooms with new equipment that includes child-friendly PPE and signage as well as school shoes for children to wear only in the classroom. For those families that will remain completely virtual and are interested in Butterflies services, our clinicians continued to support them remotely. Butterflies clinicians continue to provide mental health services virtually and are checking in consistently through one-on-one consultations to see if they could benefit from additional supports. But for so many of our families, access to stable Wifi and working technology remains a challenge, and a yet another sign of the social inequalities that the virus has exposed.

So often, we hear that children are resilient, but children are not immune from stress and trauma. Our babies and children are much more perceptive than we often give them credit for, and certainly absorb and even carry the weight of the anxieties, fear, or sadness of the adults and caregivers around them. Over the last year, our teachers have noticed how our littlest New Yorkers have been impacted by the stress and changes related to the pandemic. Because Covid safety protocols require mask-wearing and additional social distancing in classrooms, children are limited to the types of nurturing social interactions they can have with their teachers or peers. Put simply, some of our children have forgotten how to play. At our center in Park Slope, teachers have observed 4-year-olds, some of whom have been with our center since they were 2, forget how to interact in developmentally appropriate ways. Typical behaviors one might expect like cooperative play have been impacted by the collective anxieties and traumas we have all experienced over the past year.

Even as the hope of spring and the upward vaccination numbers signals a more buoyant summer and fall, we know that Covid-19 will have lasting impacts on all of us, including our youngest. We need more mental health supports in the classroom, as our teachers too have been bearing the brunt of the emotional work to support themselves, their families, and so many other through this difficult time. We need more community work, and more staff that speak multiple languages and have the cultural knowledge that is representative of the multilingual, multicultural families in this vibrant city. We need to do more group work with parents and caregivers around self-care, and having culturally knowledgeable, multilingual staff will better reach our families. We will need to provide our families with the appropriate coping strategies to handle this difficult transition and develop creative ways to continue offering virtual programming in the future. And to do all of this, we need the city to prioritize and fund the Children Under 5 Mental Health Initiative and we need the city to fulfill its indirect rate commitment to nonprofits so that we can successfully run this and the other essential community programming.

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