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Parents Still Have To Trade Custody For Children’s Mental Health Treatment


An Illinois law passed in 2014 was supposed to ensure that families no longer have to give up custody of their children in order to get them necessary mental health treatment. But it remains an issue to this day, and the chief sponsor of the Custody Relinquishment Prevention Act (HB5598) says several state agencies are to blame.

When parents are unable to get residential treatment for a child with a severe mental health or behavioral health disorder, the state has historically required that families relinquish custody in what’s known as a “planned abandonment” or a psychiatric lockout. 

It involves bringing the child to a hospital and refusing to pick them up, in which case the Department of Children and Family Services takes custody and provides the child treatment. The agency is then required to investigate the family for child neglect.

When HB5598 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 Tuesday, February 20. 

Sara Feigenholtz
Credit ilga.gov
Sara Feigenholtz

The bill’s author, Democratic state representative Sara Feigenholtz of 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, who 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 providing adequate 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."

Feigenholtz also asked what DCFS is doing to prevent tragedies like the one that recently took place in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people died in a mass shooting at a high school. She cited reporting from the New York Times that found that despite several red flags, Florida's DCFS determined the alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz wasn’t at risk of harming himself or others.

Illinois’s DCFS acting director Beverly Walker said that while she cannot comment on the specifics of the Florida situation, her agency does everything it can to conduct thorough investigations. This includes seeking to understand “what is happening in the social media environment when we can,” she said, although this can be difficult because of users' privacy settings.

Walker said being able to better monitor social media is an issue she is “trying desperately to address” for the sake of preventing future tragedies.

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.

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