Cottonwood's case

Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The staff at Cottonwood Treatment Center takes great pride in providing structured guidance and education for children who have, through no fault of their own, difficulty coping with the real world.

Parents of these children speak glowingly of the help their children receive, often to the point to being able to return to functioning in normal society.

Children who are nurtured at the center may, in some cases, never know the extraordinary effort made on their behalf. But, thankfully, many of them are helped enough that they are able to understand how their lives have been improved.

And Missouri's taxpayers, who pay for the center through the Department of Mental Health, can take some gratification in knowing that their tax dollars are being used to the maximum extent possible at Cottonwood.

But the grim fact is that the state's spending requests continue to exceed anticipated revenue. Weeks ago, the governor's office and budget director began the enormous task of preparing a state budget. Heads of state departments and agencies were asked what would have to be eliminated in the event of a statewide across-the-board 10 percent reduction in spending. This exercise is both a way of forcing state officials to consider what is absolutely essential and to prepare for the possibility of having to make such cuts if the financial picture doesn't improve substantially.

Out of those recommendations came spending needs that were addressed in the proposed budget, presented by Gov. Bob Holden to the Missouri Legislature last month, and cuts that would likely have to be made. Cottonwood and other facilities were part of the cuts. A total of 375 jobs -- including 83 at Cottonwood -- would be eliminated under the announced cuts for a savings of $7.4 million.

Legislators from Cape Girardeau immediately said they intended to restore funding for Cottonwood that had been left out of the governor's budget. Of course, legislators across the state are being besieged by concerned constituents who want to save funding for other programs they consider to be equally as important. Whether the money can be found is still up in the air.

Is funding for Cottonwood more important that other spending needs?

Many Missourians will recall a time when the state's answer to youngsters who had social and behavioral problems was simply to turn them over to juvenile authorities, even though what they needed was competent mental-health treatment. Many of these youngsters wound up in juvenile detention centers -- or, worse, in state mental hospitals where staff members were trained to deal with adults.

Cottonwood, which opened in 1987, has long been regarded as a godsend to parents of children who benefit from the specialized treatment the center provides. The center is the state's only residential treatment center devoted exclusively to treating mentally ill children.

Without Cottonwood, fewer children would receive the care they so desperately need.

The arguments for keeping Cottonwood open are compelling. The promises of local legislators to do just that can be based on a level of services that won't be available if Cottonwood is closed. Let's hope they are successful.

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