Editor’s Note: Carlos is a little boy who suffers from ADHD and severe anxiety. His family doesn't have insurance and relies on the public mental health system. But now a broke state may be taking out a mortgage on his future. CNN's Thelma Gutierrez has his story for the American Morning original series we're calling "Saving Carlos." Tomorrow, we find out how just how much Carlos' therapy costs taxpayers and whether he'll be able to keep on going.
By Thelma Gutierrez, CNN
(CNN) - South Los Angeles is a community of working class families, hit hard by the economy. This is where I met Carlos more than a month ago.
He is a young boy who is at the mercy of California lawmakers. They control the state's budget and, in some way, his future.
Carlos needs help. He's only in the 2nd grade already and he’s falling through the cracks.
Carlos lives with his sister and parents. They're unemployed, uninsured and barely scraping by. Among Carlos' many challenges in life, he also suffers from severe anxiety and ADHD.
He meets regularly with Elena Fernandez, director of behavioral health, at St. John's Community Clinic in South Los Angeles. She's trying to unlock the causes of his angst.
Elena uses art therapy to help Carlos express things that are going in his life. Carlos' mother says she believes it is critical for people to understand how important these services are to children like her son.
During therapy, Carlos draws a picture of his “family fights.”
“This is my mom, this is my dad. Sometimes he fights with me,” he says. “…sometimes I cry.”
Carlos tells Elena his dad used to drink and that led to fighting between his mom and dad. He says at home, there was no escape. That was six months ago. Carlos' life was in shambles.
“I just want to leave somewhere,” he says. “I tell them not to fight. I tell ‘em if you fight, I'm out of here.”
“He first came to me because he was having lots of problems at home and mom did not know how to modify his behavior,” says Fernandez. “The teacher was frustrated and didn't know how to help Carlos and was writing him up or sending him to the office or wanting him out of the classroom instead of working with him.”
Carlos' mom, Leticia, tells me she worried her son was being written off at the age of 8. He felt labeled as a "bad kid" and rejected by his teacher. Leticia said she knew mental health services. She searched for clinics that accept Medi-Cal, a state public health program for the poor.
Leticia says she tried really hard to get help. She says she took him to four different clinics and each time she was told Carlos didn't qualify because he wasn't considered an emergency.
Carlos would have to be physically violent or suicidal to get help. It sounds extreme, but an official with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health told us clinics are so overloaded and under-funded, they're forced to triage children. And right now, those who need ongoing therapy like Carlos, are not a priority.
After nearly a year of searching, Leticia finally found St. John's, a free clinic.
If Carlos wasn't able to go to his therapy sessions at St. John’s, would he be at risk?
“Of course he would be at risk,” says Fernandez. “He'd be at risk behaviorally and academically.”
But now, St. Johns and other clinics like it are also facing California's bruising budget cuts. The 7000 people who receive help from St. John's alone will no longer receive mental health care, and that includes 4000 kids just like Carlos whose family is now in therapy.