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Despite Law, 'Planned Abandonment' Persists As Last Resort For Troubled Families

Niko Si

A law passed in 2014 was supposed to ensure Illinois families no longer have to give up custody of their children in order to get them necessary mental health treatment.

Even so, for years families with no other options have been forced to abandon their children to get them the help they need, and legislators say state agencies are to blame.

Parents of children with severe mental health or behavioral health disorders can encounter numerous challenges when it comes to getting access to necessary treatment. Waiting lists for residential treatment centers can be weeks or months long, and even if a spot is available, the treatment —which can run up to $200,000 a year —is often denied by private insurance companies and Medicaid.

Some parents desperate to help their children consider a last-resort option: get the treatment through the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. But to do so, families must relinquish custody in what’s known as a “planned abandonment” or a psychiatric lockout.

A ”planned abandonment” involves bringing the child to a hospital and refusing to pick them up, in which case DCFS takes custody and provides the child treatment. The agency is then required to investigate the family for child neglect.

When the law ensuring parents could retain custody passed four years ago, six state agencies were appointed to come up with a plan to end lockouts. But it wasn’t until last April that a program was put in place, according to a representative of the Department of Children and Family Services who spoke at an Illinois House Mental Health Committee hearing in Chicago on Feb. 20.

The author, Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), says the delay has caused the number of children going into custody to actually go up since the time the legislation was signed into law.

"I would love to hear why it’s taken so long and why that number is spiking," she said, addressing Felicia Norwood, the director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Norwood is the defendant in a federal lawsuit that claimed the state illegally withheld medically necessary services from children with severe mental health disorders. That case was settled in federal court last month, and the judge has given the state until October to come up with a plan for making in-home and community-based mental health treatment available to all Medicaid-eligible children in accordance with federal Medicaid law.

“I've been disappointed at the lack of progress," Feigenholtz said. "It just shows the [agencies'] lack of commitment, unfortunately."

Several mental health providers and advocates also testified before lawmakers about the challenges Illinois families face when it comes to accessing treatment, calling on lawmakers to fix what they call the state’s broken mental health system.

This story originally appeared onWILL Public Media in Champaign-Urbana. 

Christine Herman is the managing editor for Side Effects Public Media