BOX ELDER – State lawmakers scoffed at the idea to spend $250,000 hiring a consultant to form a coalition to look at youth suicide on Montana's reservations, instead saying it's time to act now and not just talk more about ways to fix the problem.
In 2014, 21 American Indians committed suicide, and most were between 15-35, according to the Montana Mortality Suicide Review Team. That year 248 Montanans died by suicide, and most were older, between 45-64.
Lesa Evers, tribal relations manager for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, told the State-Tribal Relations committee Wednesday that she and several others in the department had been traveling to tribes around the state to get feedback on how to best spend the money, which was allocated out of House Bill 2, the budget bill passed by the 2015 Legislature.
Evers said the agency spent a large amount of time consulting tribes and a lack of consensus on the best way to spend the money led to the idea to hire a consultant.
“We felt we found the right way,” she said. “In all of our discussions and tribal consultation and following public discussion, there’s not a unanimous way to utilize these funds.”
The money will be administered through the Children's Mental Health Bureau of DPHHS, which had planned to release a request for proposals this month and make awards in May.
The plan is to hire a contractor to form a coalition with tribes and urban American Indian representatives to create a strategic plan to address several core issues surrounding suicide among American Indian children.
Evers said the department would use $100,000 for the consultant's contract, $20,000 for expenses to bring people together for meetings and to hold back $130,000 to either start executing a strategic plan the consultant would create or fund grant requests from tribes to pay for programs on their reservations.
Evers said a coalition would start meeting between August and October and by November present a strategic plan. By January a decision would be made how to spend the remaining money.
But Sen. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, said she thinks the problem can’t wait for a coalition and strategic plan and the money could be better spent funding programs that already exist.
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She wants to delay the requests for proposals until the committee can send a letter to DPHHS to discuss how the funds are sent. The committee will take up the issue Thursday when it meets here again.
“We’re not going to get a best-practices answer from a contractor,” she said. “People are going to organically create the solution in their area that is going to work for them, and frankly if they don’t, this is not going to work.
“This is a community, cultural problem that is not going to be addressed at the 30,000-foot level. I really think in his particular situation a coalition of tribes is not the best solution. We have individual tribal members who are working on the problem on their reservations.”
Hansen also questioned whether the Legislature would lend support if the coalition came to the 2017 season with a request for more money without seeing results.
“I think there is a noncoalition-based solution to this problem, and I think we can spend money that way,” she said. “We have to have some reason to fund it, and what I’m looking for is?: "Is this program able to reach more kids?”
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said he agreed with Hansen.
“If we don’t do anything now, and we provided you the resources, we need to get these programs that are actually doing things right now.”
“If we keep spinning our wheels … and we don’t do anything to move to that next step; we’ve been hearing this for years,” Windy Boy said.
Evers said she would share the committee’s thoughts with the department’s director and understood and appreciated the committee's concerns.
“I appreciate the passion, care and concern,” she said. “That’s what’s going to bring us all together. I don't know that $250,000 is going to solve it, but we have to make an effort.”