Chairman Collins Examines Why Parents Must Relinquish Custody to Obtain Mental Health Services for Their Kids

WASHINGTON, D.C.-Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) today heard firsthand from mothers who were told to relinquish custody in order to obtain mental health care services for their children. The mothers and family advocates testified during a hearing titled, “Nowhere to Turn: Must Parents Relinquish Custody in Order to Secure Mental Health Services for Their Children?”

“Too many families in Maine and elsewhere have felt compelled to make wrenching decisions due to advice-often erroneous-that the only way to get the care that their children so desperately need is to relinquish custody and place them in either the child welfare or juvenile justice system,” said Collins. “Neither of these systems is equipped to care for a child with a serious mental illness, but in far too many cases, there is nowhere else for the family to turn.”

Too often, parents of severely mentally ill children are advised that the only way they can obtain services, which can be out of reach for all but the wealthiest of families, is to relinquish custody and place the children in state child welfare or juvenile justice systems.

According to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report requested by Collins earlier this year, state child welfare officials and county juvenile justice officials in 30 counties estimated that more than 12,700 children were placed in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems in order to obtain mental health services. Factors influencing placement included health insurance limitations, a limited supply of mental health services and providers, and state and local officials’ misunderstandings of their agencies’ service requirements, responsibilities, and resources. Moreover, according to the GAO, this estimate likely understates the prevalence of the problem. A survey conducted by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill found that 23 percent of the parents surveyed had been told by public officials that they needed to relinquish custody of their children to get care, and that one in five of the families had done so.

“I hope these hearings will pave the way for legislative and administrative reforms at both the federal and state level to reduce the barriers to care for children who suffer from mental illness,” said Collins. She is planning to introduce legislation that would provide grants and technical assistance to encourage states to develop and maintain a “systems of care” approach for families to access mental health and other support services.

Part II of the hearing, featuring testimony from government representatives, will be held on Thursday, July 17 at 9:30 a.m. in SD-342 in the Senate Dirksen Office Building.