Two-thirds of states don’t keep track of how many families give up custody to help the child get mental health services. But a study by the Government Accountability Office found that back in 2001, more than 12,000 families in 19 states did exactly that.
Today in Illinois, state records show that dozens of children enter state custody this way each year, despite a 2015 state law aimed at preventing it. And new data collected by the University of Maryland for the federal government finds Illinois is not alone at failing to address this issue.
Once the state’s child welfare agency steps in to take custody, the agency will place the child in residential treatment and pay for it, says attorney Robert Farley Jr., who is based in Naperville, Ill.
“So you get residential services, but then you’ve given up custody of your child,” Farley says. “Which is, you know, barbaric. You have to give up your child to get something necessary.”
Mental health advocates say the problem is one of “too little, too late.” Even when states try to help children get access to treatment without a custody transfer, the efforts come too late in the progression of the child’s illness.
The advocates blame decades of inadequate funding for in-home and community-based services across the country — a lack of funding that has chipped away at the mental health system. Without that early intervention, children deteriorate to the point of being needlessly hospitalized and requiring costly residential care.
Early-intervention services are either not available or not accessible because insurance companies deny coverage. “What Illinois needs to put into place is a system that helps these families early on, so that these kids never get hospitalized,” said Illinois mental health advocate Heather O’Donnell.
“Kids do need services,” says one mother. “But they also need the support of their families.”
When they have both, she says, a lot of kids can be a lot more successful.