02/03/2014 03:14 EST | Updated 04/05/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta budgets extra $5M to speed up mental health services for children

CALGARY - Alberta is putting up $5 million for children facing mental health crises to get help right away, Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar announced Monday.

"If a child is dealing with trauma in the child intervention system, I want that child to receive assistance as soon as possible," Bhullar told a news conference.

"Trauma is so difficult for any human being to deal with. And if you're a child and you have to come into the care of the child intervention system, man, that's one of the toughest things of all."

More than $1 million is to be given to three care agencies — in Red Deer, Edmonton, and Calgary — to hire staff and improve services so that children and youth deemed to be in acute distress can be seen and counselled right away.

The agency resources are to include overnight care.

The province also plans to work with existing mental-health professionals, including counsellors and psychologists, to allow for children in care to get up to eight counselling or treatment sessions right away.

Bhullar said that is meant to address a critical lag period of up to three months children face from the time they can be assessed to the time they get help.

A discussion by experts held last week in Edmonton included issues about children in care.

The $5 million will also be used to:

— Provide better access to mental-health specialists for children who have experienced physical, mental, or sexual abuse.

— Give child intervention staff instant access to clinical and medical consultation so they can better recommend treatment or medications.

— Give more training and support to caregivers who are looking after children with mental-health issues.

Bhullar said coaching is key.

"It's vital that foster parents and other caregivers have the proper training and support they need to help them through these difficult times."

The plan is to have the changes in place by the end of March.

Bhullar has said he wants action to address the root causes of problems with children in care, including mental health issues.

He has also promised changes to ensure that more information gets out to the public on any deaths of children while they are in care.

Bhullar took over the portfolio last month, just weeks after a Postmedia newspaper series detailed organizational dysfunction within the foster-care system and revealed that the province had not publicly reported the deaths of 89 children in government care since 1999.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton