An Illinois Senate bill aims to help children who are at risk of entering state custody because of issues caused by untreated mental illness. The measure comes as states grapple with ways to help parents who face a heartbreaking choice: giving up custody to obtain expensive treatment for a child.
Attorney Charles Golbert, Cook County Acting Public Guardian, says children and youth with serious mental illness may act violently and land in juvenile court.
In these cases, the judge may determine that the child needs treatment in lieu of incarceration.
But currently, Golbert says, “the only way to get funding for the mental health treatment [is] for the court to put the child in the custody” of the Department of Children and Family Services.
That means parents give up custody solely to access needed services. Golbert says in Cook County alone there are about 100 children in the agency's custody under these circumstances at any given time.
Golbert hopes this issue will be addressed in a new Senate bill, which is sponsored by Democratic State Sen. Laura Fine of Glenview.
Fine says she worked with the Cook County Public Guardian’s office to craft this legislation.
When parents have to relinquish custody of a child with a mental health issue, it “adds insult to injury, because the family wants to obviously keep custody of their child, but they also want to do what’s best for their child,” Fine says. “This would allow them to do both.”
The measure would allow Illinois families to access funding from the Family Support Program to pay for a child’s mental health treatment, even if the agency steps in to provide temporary guardianship until those services are arranged.
This way, “children who find themselves in the delinquency courts—because of a mental health problem, not because of an issue that needs incarceration—do not have to be taken away from their parents to obtain that,” Golbert says.
This bill complements a measure passed last year that aims to help children who are not involved in the court system, Golbert says. That legislation was crafted in response to the 2015 Custody Relinquishment Prevention Act—a law that requires six state agencies to intervene and coordinate services for parents who are on the brink of trading custody for mental health services.
But despite that law, roughly 100 Illinois children a year continue to enter state custody under these circumstances, in addition to those who do so through the juvenile court system, Golbert says.
The new measure passed out of the Senate Committee on Human Services this week and goes now to the full Senate for consideration. If signed into law, the changes would take effect in July 2019.
But it won't help everyone, as only families that already have a pending application with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services for the Family Support Program are eligible. Additionally, the child must be under age 15 and meet other requirements of the Family Support Program.
And since many parents don’t know about the program, Golbert says it will be important for state agencies to do a better job with outreach and education.
The broader issue that’s not addressed in this bill, he adds, is the shortage of residential treatment beds in Illinois for children who require that level of care. That shortage causes foster care children to languish in psychiatric facilities for weeks or months after they’re ready for discharge, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Cook County Public Guardian in December 2018.
Golbert says the new legislation would help prevent this problem from getting worse by keeping children with significant mental health needs from unnecessarily entering state custody.
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.
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