Lead the way

April 25, 2003

THE GENERAL Accounting Office has confirmed what Maryland already knew: Far too often, a child with severe mental illness must lose his parents to gain access to proper care.

The depressing scope of this problem, still grossly underestimated, begins to come to light via a recent GAO survey: In the 19 states and 30 counties that responded to the survey, 12,700 children were turned over to social service agencies or police in 2001 because parents could not afford or find appropriate treatment. Often, the parents must give up custody because they run out of resources, or their private insurance provider will not cover the child's care.

There likely are thousands more families nationwide suffering the guilt and pain of separations forced by desperation. But 31 states, including the five with the largest populations of children, shared no data. The GAO recommends that national agencies begin tracking these sad cases, and collaborating with state agencies to find solutions that keep families together.

But so much more can be done now. In fact, Maryland -- with at least 200 such cases -- could emerge as a model of compassion with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s support for legislation intended to protect these families.

Already, he has removed an unfair stigma that had been attached to them: This week, he signed into law a General Assembly bill saying parents who sever custody to get treatment for sick children are not to be declared neglectful by the state.

Also, he fulfilled his campaign promise to establish a state council to study the problem of children forced into government custody and to recommend solutions. The executive order launching the council also sought to centralize the management of these cases, which should help Maryland track and attend to them.

Mr. Ehrlich has an opportunity to do even more. His Council on Custody Relinquishment is still reviewing two additional bills approved by legislators, including one directing the state to seek federal Medicaid reimbursement for some of its spending on children's services. That proposal would earmark millions of dollars potentially to be gained this way for providing community-based services for mentally ill children who are at risk of losing their family ties.

Some opponents don't want possible new state revenue to be tied down in this fashion by legislation, as a matter of principle. But the intent of the lawmakers was clear: Signing the bill, and another affecting voluntary placements, would reflect the will of Marylanders to ensure that families come first. Parents struggling with all their might to help a sick child need a hand, not a backhand.

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