Delaware, particularly the southern part of the state, has a huge shortage of mental health professionals, experts told a study group established to assess child mental health needs in Kent and Sussex Counties.
The 15-member panel created by the General Assembly last month held its first meeting Monday in Dover. The formation of the group was prompted by the case of former Lewes pediatrician Earl Bradley, who was convicted in June of sexually abusing more than 100 young patients over more than a decade.
The first challenge, according to Charles Webb, psychologist for the Division of Prevention and Behavioral Health Services, is determining the total number of victims in the Bradley case. Webb says over his career, Bradley saw at least 5,000 patients, which means there are that many potential victims.
“When we say 5,000 potential victims, we’re saying that these children were in the company of a known perpetrator,” Webb said. “We’re not saying that these children have been sexually abused. It’s really hard to know what size population we’re dealing with.
“There are really good interventions for children who have been sexually abused,” he said, “the big challenge is identifying those children, getting them through referral streams and into practitioners who are trained and engaging the families.”
Webb says only one out of every five children with a debilitating mental health disorder ever gets any treatment. With sexual abuse cases Webb says many people don’t seek help because they are afraid or embarrassed.
Once victims are identified the other challenge is getting them the professional help they need.
Jim Lafferty, Executive Director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, hopes one outcome of the study group is an increase in the mental health professional workforce in Sussex County. He told the panel there are massive shortages in licensed social workers, mental health counsellors and child psychiatrists. He cited a 2006 University of Delaware study that determined a doctor to population ratio in Sussex County of 22,000 to 1. That compares to ratios of 6,000 to 1 in New Castle County and 5,000 to 1 in Kent County.
“That (recruiting) is a huge challenge, but it’s one I think we really need to address,” he said. “I certainly have no answers. It’s been a problem for years. But I think as a group we can somehow find a way to step up our efforts, to recruit, to bring people into Sussex County and Kent.”
Webb reminded the panel that there is a much larger problem with sexual abuse in Delaware. He says nationwide 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 7 boys is a victim of sexual abuse.
“The problem pre-existed Bradley, and will continue to exist,” he said.
Under the joint resolution, the study group, chaired by Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, must present a final report to the legislature by March 14, 2012.