This story mentions suicide and self-harm. If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the national suicide hotline at 988. The Colorado Crisis Hotline is also available at 1-844-493-825. They can also be reached through text messages by texting “talk” to 38255.
AURORA | Members of a local parents advocacy group say it’s inappropriate for mental health crisis hotline workers to speak with children and offer treatment without parental consent or knowledge.
“We’re going to be talking about the evidence of real harm to children across the state under the guise of mental health,” Lori Gimelshteyn, executive director of Colorado Parent Advocacy Network, told participants in a social-media broadcast meeting earlier this month.
Despite acknowledging that mental health is a problem in the country, it’s one of many grievances Gimelshteyn made against the Colorado Crisis Services hotline during a Nov. 2 online discussion she hosted.
The group discussion was hosted on X, formerly known as Twitter, and the recording of the hour-long discussion is available online. As of Friday, more than 250 people have listened to the discourse.
The group moved into local politics recently by endorsing candidates for Cherry Creek schools board and taking positions on a variety of education issues, mirroring concerns and philosophies similar to Moms for Liberty and other parental-rights groups. Gimelshteyn has repeatedly said that CPAN is not a political organization, but it has often collaborated with right-wing organizations such as Turning Point USA and Libs of TikTok.
CPAN’s website states that they are a statewide organization, but members of the group, including Gimelshteyn, have focused complaints against Cherry Creek School District, which recently opened an expansive day facility to support students struggling with mental health.
Gimeslshteyn’s complaints against the statewide mental health crisis hotline ranged from staff qualifications to child safety. The Sentinel looked into those complaints.
What is the crisis hotline?
Colorado Crisis Services hotline is a free resource for people in need of mental health, substance use and emotional support. People can call or text the hotline, which is open 24/7, every day, according to the organization’s website.
The crisis hotline “immediately connects callers or texters who might be experiencing behavioral crisis with trained staff that are able to de-escalate, screen, triage or be able to refer people to other community based services than the call can provide,” said Marc Condojani, the director of adult treatment and recovery for the Behavioral Health Administration.
“We know that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 to 24,” Condojani said. “We certainly encourage young people to reach out to family, friends, trusted adults when they’re struggling with their mental health, but sometimes young people might not feel comfortable or safe to do so. So having an option to call or text with a trained supportive person gives the true lifeline.”
Colorado has the sixth-highest suicide rate among all states, about 22 deaths per 100,000 people each year. Teen suicide rates mirror that assessment, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and other sources.
The hotline workers who respond to texts and calls are trained in crisis management, according to their website. People who contact the hotline have the option of speaking with a trained professional or a peer specialist.
Stefany Busch, spokesperson for the state’s Behavioral Health Administration, the agency in charge of the crisis hotline, said that the people who work on the hotlines are paid employees. However, she did not immediately respond to the Sentinel’s question about hotline employee qualifications Friday afternoon.
Similar organizations like the Rocky Mountain Crisis Partnerships, require employees to have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, clinical social work or other related fields.
While suicide-prevention hotlines have a long history in the United States and other countries, a 2020 National Institue of Health study of 30 studies calls for more analysis. It stipulates, however, that most of the studies show immediate benefit from crisis-line intervention.
Gimelshteyn expressed various concerns about the hotline workers. One of her concerns was about their weeks-long training, comparing it to the 6-year long training and education she went through to become a speech pathologist.
The crisis specialists are trained to respond to people of all age groups. Some of the topics they are trained in include: substance use, self harm, crisis counseling and interventions.
Crisis hotline workers are mandatory reporters and “follow mandatory reporting policy and procedure.” However, hotline workers may not have enough information to report suspected child abuse and neglect because people who use the hotline are not required to provide identifying information.
The hotline workers are also supervised in individual and group settings in accordance with the American Association of Suicidology accreditation requirements.
Gimelshteyn also complained that the hotline workers have an obligation to inform parents about their child’s mental health treatment. Condojani said the hotline is not considered mental health treatment, but is “a supportive service.”
“It’s clearly not meant to provide treatment or do diagnosis or testing or formal assessment, or counseling for callers and texters,” Condojani said. He added that if additional support is needed, then the hotline workers will offer referrals to other services.
Posing as a child
During the online discussion, Gimelshteyn stated that one time she texted the hotline while posing as a 9-year-old girl, “Hailey,” who was wondering if she was transgender.
“Hailey” told the hotline worker that she didn’t want her parents to know about her concerns.
She said that the hotline worker reassured her that the conversation would be confidential and asked if she was thinking about hurting herself, to which “Hailey” responded she was not. The hotline worker then sent her links to resources such as the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization focused on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community. They also provide resources on mental health, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Gimelshteyn made a montage of screenshots of the text conversation between “Hailey” and the hotline worker and posted it on Facebook and X in late October.
Another complaint Gimelshteyn had about the hotline was that the crisis specialist asked for “Hailey’s” name, date of birth, pronoun and zip code. She said it was “highly personal information” and she said that “children should never give out their personal identifying information without their parents permission.”
Condojani said that the people who call or text the hotline are not required to give out that information in order to use the service.
He added that specialists ask for that information “so that they can respond appropriately. There’s going to be a different response if they know they’re talking to someone who’s 10-years-old versus someone who’s 30-years-old.”
Condojani also explained that knowing “roughly where [someone’s] location is can be helpful” in case they need to escalate the situation and contact emergency medical services.
Between June and August, the crisis hotline reportedly received over 10,000 calls and 3,000 texts. People who self-identified as being under 12-years-old made up 1% of calls and 4% of texts. People who said they were between the ages of 13-17 made up 4% of calls and 14% of texts.
Busch said the data only represents those who chose to provide identifying information to the hotline workers.
One of the guest speakers invited to “speak” at the social-media event was George Mumma. According to his LinkedIn account, Mumma has worked at the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office for 22 years and served as the Morrison Police Department Chief for two years.
According to Brionna Boatright, spokesperson for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, Mumma’s “primary assignment involved working with the Jefferson County Juvenile Assessment Center, focusing on juveniles accused of committing crimes and addressing safety issues in local schools.”
While he was not a part of the Crimes Against Children Unit during his tenure at the DA’s office, he assisted in investigations targeting adults that solicited children online for sexual purposes.
Mumma accused hotline workers of grooming children.
He claimed that the hotline workers are “posing as a trusted adult, the same thing that was going on during [his] sex crimes investigation. So what they’re doing is leading this child down a road without parental involvement, which is the same thing we saw in the sex crimes field.”
Condojani said that while parents should be vigilant about what their children are doing online, he would feel comfortable if his children contacted the hotline.
“I certainly hope and pray that if [my children] are struggling with anything that they feel comfortable and safe bringing it to me or my wife and asking for help. And if not us, a safe adult that they do know in their life, whether that’s a teacher or a coach or somebody else. But if they didn’t, for some reason…I would feel very safe as a parent with [the crisis hotline] if my kid had to use it,” he said.
During the second half of the online discussion, Carolyn Martin, director of government relations for Christian Home Educators of Colorado, spoke about potential state legislature bills that “undermine parent’s rights.”
Some of the measures, already passed law, are: HB19-1032, which adds content requirements for public schools that offer comprehensive human sexuality education; HB19-1129, which prohibits a mental health care provider from engaging in conversation therapy with a minor; and SB23-296, which requires public schools to accept formal reports of harassment and discrimination and adopt procedures to investigate those reports.
Colorado lawmakers will convene in January 2024 for the next legislative session.