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Bill Would Help Needy Parents with Handicapped Children

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When Mark Parker relinquished custody of his 11-year-old daughter in December, he was feeling hopeless.

Parker turned Lacey over to the Texas Child Protective Services agency to provide her with desperately needed mental-health services. It also protects his other children from a child who had become increasingly violent.

Legislation recently introduced in Congress offers some hope to families like the Parkers, forced to make agonizing decisions to get treatment for their mentally ill children.

Called the Keeping Families Together Act, the legislation proposes more than $60 million in grants over the next six years. Most of the funds would aid states in establishing infrastructure and systems of care to prevent parental custody relinquishment. Grants are conditioned on the existence of state laws or policies that ensure children get mental health services without parental relinquishment.

Parker says the legislation ``is a step forward'' and demonstrates that Congress is starting to take notice of what mental-health advocates call a national disgrace.

But Parker adds, ``I don't see this helping in the immediate future.''

They still have to develop this infrastructure they're talking about. It's not going to happen overnight, even if it's passed,'' he said.I'm not celebrating yet.''

Thousands of parents of limited means, who have limited or no insurance and who don't qualify for Medicaid are forced to give up custody.

In December, Parker's insurance company refused to keep paying for long-term residential treatment for Lacey, who has been diagnosed with major depression, reactive attachment disorder, severe attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She has a history of attacking children, and Parker was afraid to take her home because she had tried to drown one of his other children.

Forcing parents to give up custody of their children is such an anathema to what we're about as a country,'' says Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-R.I., one of the supporters of the bill.Our policies when dealing with the most vulnerable of our citizens are so punitive and destructive.''

Kennedy, son of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., has a personal interest in the issue. He has manic-depression, or bipolar disorder. His aunt, Rosemary Kennedy, is mentally retarded and institutionalized. And, for years, the Kennedy family has focused its philanthropy on mental illness and mental retardation.

The need for action is compelling, Patrick Kennedy said.

I have seen the impact of untreated mental illness in my own life and my family and in other families,'' he added.It's an issue crying out for attention.''

Early this year, Kennedy asked the General Accounting Office - the investigative branch of Congress - to examine the relinquishment problem. In April, the GAO estimated that in 2001, 12,700 children were placed with child welfare and juvenile justice agencies solely so they could receive mental health services.

Mental health advocates say the figures are just the tip of the iceberg because only 19 states reported.

A survey of parents by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill found that 20 percent had relinquished custody to get their children treatment.

These youngsters, many of them adolescents, have serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia. Their parents are frustrated by fragmented and inadequate services and are drained, financially and emotionally.

S.G. Barron, director of operations for the Texas Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health in Austin, praised Kennedy and his co-sponsors for proposing the legislation. She sees urgency in the current fiscal climate.

With state budget cutbacks, a lot of cuts have been made in mental health,'' Barron said.And families that have children in crisis are going to be looking at relinquishment of custody even more than they have previously. This at least forces the state to take the issue seriously.''


(The San Antonio Express-News web site is at

c.2003 San Antonio Express-News

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