Testimony of Jorge Membreño, Director of Youth Advocacy, before the Committee of the Whole

May 3, 2024
Person Testifying: Jorge Membreño
Title: Director of Youth Advocacy, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Committee of the Whole
Type of Hearing: Budget Hearing

Thank you Chairman Mendelson and esteemed Councilmembers for the opportunity to address you today at the start of a marathon day of testimony. My name is Jorge Membreño and I am the Director of Youth Advocacy with DC Action. As you can see, there are a lot of us here today from DC Action representing the voices of babies, children, youth, and families from all over the District. Today I’ll be speaking as a parent, therapist, and social worker who has seen firsthand the effects and ripples across a lifetime from singular decisions. 

The mayor’s budget is full of potentially catastrophic ripples. To give you an example, funding for school-based behavioral health services has decreased by $10 million. When I was a school social worker, I provided individual and group counseling on grief, trauma, violence, anxiety, depression, gender, and sexuality. I had a caseload of about 40 to 50 students in any given year. That’s a single social worker. Making cuts to school-based behavioral health services, instead of reinvesting dollars into innovative social worker recruitment and retention efforts, means that hundreds, if not thousands, of kids will be denied a safer space to address their mental and behavioral health needs. 

To add a ripple to that, the average age of onset for most major mental health disorders is 15 years old. Early screening and intervention for youth is the greatest tool we have to prevent those youth from becoming adults who are battling major mental illness. According to the Department of Behavioral Health, District Medicaid and local funds paid $184.4 million for mental health services claims as of mid-year FY23 with adults (18+) making up 89.4% of those claims. The number of adult consumers served increased by 16.7%, and there was a 42% increase in overall expenditures from FY22 mid-year to FY23 mid-year. Early intervention isn’t just sound clinical practice, it saves the city money. 

I’ll add another ripple. According to the Youth Count survey administered by The Community Partnership, 32% of youth experiencing homelessness in the District reported impaired mental health, with most diagnoses (including depression, anxiety, and PTSD) beginning at around age 15. Mental health and homelessness have a bi-directional effect, which means they affect each other. Early intervention could be the difference between being housed or unhoused, being able to secure and hold onto employment or becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty. As you can see, we can start drawing a clear line from school-based mental health services and adverse life outcomes from a single decision. 

Finally, I’ll add one last ripple. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I am able to be here today because of wonderful early educators, the majority of whom are women of color, currently caring for my seven-month-old son. As a parent, as an advocate I implore you to fully restore the Pay Equity Fund. The thought of pulling Pay Equity funding from those educators, who love on my son every day, doesn’t just feel immoral, it feels personal. They are the reason I get to be a social worker and advocate with my DC Action colleagues. They are the reason I get to go into the office and invest in downtown. They are the reason I pay to take public transportation to and from work. They are the reason I invest in local businesses. They are the reason I get to serve the babies, children, youth, and families in DC. I challenge this council to serve them with me.

Thank you.