Editor’s Note: Yesterday on American Morning, we introduced you to Carlos. He's 8, uninsured, and struggling with ADHD and severe anxiety. Now, deep budget cuts in California could put his future in jeopardy. Is it fair to put a price on something like that? Today, CNN's Thelma Gutierrez takes a look at the debate for original series we're calling "Saving Carlos."
By Thelma Gutierrez, CNN
(CNN) – Carlos lives in south Los Angeles. His mother is a homemaker. His father is a street vendor.
Carlos says he wants us to understand his world. Although he is only a 2nd-grader, what struck me most over the month we spent with him is that already he says he wants a new life.
Carlos suffers from ADHD and severe anxiety, made worse by problems at home.
“I draw a picture about my family because they were fighting,” says Carlos. “Sometime when they fight, it's because when my dad drinks.”
Carlos' father didn't want to be on camera, but acknowledged he has had a hard time lately and financial pressures have only made things worse at home.
Carlos' mother, Leticia, wants to keep the family together, but knows they need help. Their son was failing in school and becoming disruptive at home.
When Leticia went looking for help, what she found were clinics grossly overburdened. In Los Angeles County alone, $216 million was slashed from its mental health department. Now county clinics are only taking kids who are suicidal or physically violent, not kids like Carlos, whose condition might not be as urgent, but is still just as serious.
It took nearly a year for Leticia to find St. John's Family Center in south L.A., a free clinic that accepted his case.
She told me her kids are everything to her and allowed us to shoot her son's private therapy sessions because she wants to put a face on California's bruising budget crisis.
Now, just as Carlos is starting to make progress, Leticia learned St. John's clinic also had its mental health care budget slashed.
“Just from this one clinic, seven thousand people will not receive mental health services,” says Jim Mangia of St. John's Family Center. “Out of that number, probably four thousand are children.”
This is where kids like Carlos are pulled into a political tug of war.
“I know it sounds mean and there are lots of different groups who'll say we need money. Schools need money, cities need money,” says Mike Spence, CA Republican Assembly. “All those money trees have been cut down in California, so we have to deal with it by reducing spending the best we can.”
“Does this state have a responsibility to care for its children? Do conservatives think we don't have that responsibility?” asks Mangia.
“The government has over-promised to people,” says Spence. “There are a lot of programs for children, mentally ill, the disabled. The problem is government keeps over-spending and over-taxing.”
But it’s a tough trade off.
Carlos’ therapist, Elena Fernandez, says taxpayers will pay the price for Carlos and other youngsters like him, either now while he's is in treatment or later on if he doesn't get help.
Why the taxpayers?
“Why? Because eventually we end up paying for the emergency services, the psychiatric wards, the cost it takes to imprison someone,” she says.
In California, it costs about $45,000 a year to keep someone behind bars. Fernandez worries leaving a generation of kids like Carlos untreated could mean losing them forever. But what about the cost for Carlos, a boy who loves baseball and math?
“In my future, I want to behave good,” Carlos says.
After 6 months, Elena says Carlos is finally ready to graduate. Meanwhile, his mother says the drinking and fighting at home have stopped.
And at Carlos' new school, his teacher told me he has noticed a big difference since Carlos began therapy. He's now thriving in the classroom and on the playground.
The cost of saving Carlos? About $2,000.