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Home > Research Articles > Parents of Children with Mental Illness Sacrifice Custody for Needed Care

National Mental Health Association

Monday, April 21, 2003

GAO Report Is a Snapshot of Larger Problems Facing the Mental Health System

Statement by Michael Faenza, NMHA President and CEO ALEXANDRIA, Va. (April 21, 2003) "One shudders to think that in America the parents of a child who has a mental illness would be forced to relinquish custody in order to get their child needed mental health services. Unfortunately, this heartbreaking sacrifice is all too common and is documented in today's General Accounting Office report,"Federal Agencies Could Play a Stronger Role in Helping States Reduce the Number of Children Placed Solely to Obtain Mental Health Services."

The National Mental Health Association welcomes the GAO's research confirming the very troubled situation facing parents whose children need mental health services, and applauds Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Pete Stark, D-Ca., and Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., for pressing for this report. The finding that thousands of parents across the country are voluntarily placing their children into foster care or juvenile justice systems as the only way to access needed mental health services should serve as a "wake-up" call that the children's mental health system is in dire straits.

The GAO's alarming research highlights an even broader national crisis documented by the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. In an interim report late last year, the Commission characterizes the mental health "system" in this country as "in shambles," and stresses that the situation for children is even worse. Like the GAO's findings, the Commission describes the fragmentation and gaps in children's mental health care as a "mental health maze." Only a fraction of children in need receive services, and because available programs have differing eligibility criteria and lack coordination in funding, families are left to steer through a bewildering complexity of disjointed service systems. And if this isn't bad enough, all these problems are exacerbated for children who belong to ethnic and racial minorities.

The GAO's findings and the anticipated release of a final report by the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in the weeks ahead set the stage for needed congressional action this session. High on that agenda must be the enactment of the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Equitable Treatment Act. Lack of parity in health insurance coverage leads parents to turn to an already overburdened public mental health system that is in desperate need of reform. Meeting the challenges posed by the despondent state of children's mental health will require that Congress and the country heed the Commission's call that mental health must be a national priority.

The National Mental Health Association is the country's oldest and largest nonprofit organization addressing all aspects of mental health and mental illness. The NMHA works to improve the mental health of all Americans through advocacy, education, research and service.