Serious mental illness afflicts millions of our nation’s children and adolescents. It is estimated that as many as 20 percent of American children under the age of 17 suffer from a mental, emotional or behavioral illness.
This is a disturbing statistic. Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that two-thirds of all young people who need mental health treatment are not getting it.
Behind each of these statistics is a family that is struggling to do the best it can to help a son or daughter with serious mental health to be just like every other kid – to develop friendships, to do well in school, and to get along with their siblings and other family members. These children are almost always involved with more than one social service agency, including the mental health, special education, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems.
Yet no one agency, at either the state or the federal level, is clearly responsible or accountable for helping these children and their families. As a result, too many families in Maine and elsewhere have been forced to make wrenching decisions when they have been advised that the only way to get the care that their children so desperately need is to relinquish custody and place them in either the child welfare or juvenile justice system. Child welfare systems are designed to protect children who have been abused or neglected. Juvenile justice systems are designed to rehabilitate children who have committed criminal or delinquent acts. Neither of these systems is equipped to care for a child with a serious mental illness.
In 2003 and 2004, I chaired a series of hearings in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to examine this issue further. We heard expert testimony from mental-health professionals who described the shocking extent of this national disgrace. According to a study that I requested from the Government Accountability Office, parents placed more than 12,700 children into the child welfare or juvenile justice systems in 2001 so that these children could receive mental health services. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg, since 32 states – including five states with the largest populations of children – did not provide the GAO with any data.
And we heard compelling testimony from mothers who told us that they were advised that the only way to get the services that their children needed was to relinquish custody. These mothers described the barriers they faced in getting care for their children. They told us about the limitations in both public and private insurance coverage. They talked about the lack of coordination among the various agencies that service children with mental health needs. They found themselves with nowhere to turn.
Recently, I introduced legislation that will help give these mothers, these families, and these children somewhere to turn. The bipartisan Keeping Families Together Act, which I have co-sponsored with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, would reduce the barriers to care for children with serious mental illness so that parents are no longer forced to give up custody solely for the purpose of securing mental health treatment.
The legislation authorizes $100 million over six years for competitive grants to states to create and sustain statewide systems of care to serve children who are in state custody or at risk of entering custody for the purpose of receiving mental health services. These Family Support Grants would help states to serve children more effectively and efficiently, while keeping them at home with their families. That $100 million investment is the estimated amount of the taxpayers’ money that juvenile detention facilities are spending each year simply to warehouse children and teenagers while they are waiting for mental health services.
In addition, the legislation calls for the creation of a federal interagency task force to examine mental health issues in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and to make recommendations to Congress on how to improve services. Our legislation has been endorsed by a broad coalition of mental health and children’s groups.
One of the witnesses at our "Nowhere to Turn" hearings was a mother from Maine who had been forced to relinquish custody of her 12-year-old daughter after an unsuccessful six-year struggle to keep her child at home while providing her with the care she needed. I will never forget this statement from her heartbreaking testimony:
"Part of the problem for our children with mental health needs is that we don’t teach them to live in our communities or provide them the supports they need to do that – we teach them how to leave… They are kicked out of schools – excluded from normal activities – and isolated from reality. We teach them that they are not acceptable or worthy of a loving environment."
Those are terrible lessons to teach children who need and deserve both professional help and the love and support of their families. The Keeping Families Together Act takes a critical step forward to meeting the needs of these children. It will help replace the lesson of exclusion with one of caring and compassion.