McDonnell Supports Direct Access to Services

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Parents seeking treatment for their mentally ill children should not have to place their kids in foster care for them to receive group home placements and other needed services, Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell said in an advisory opinion yesterday.

In the nine-page opinion, McDonnell (R) sought to clarify a controversial practice that has caused anguish for thousands of Virginia families.

For years, some local social service agencies have told parents of children who have schizophrenia, severe depression or bipolar disorder that they must relinquish custody to receive affordable mental health care. That's because the costs of caring for the conditions are so high that private insurers don't fully cover them, and, in many cases, the families don't qualify for Medicaid. But because children can receive treatment if they are in foster care, parents turned to that system.

The practice became so widespread that a 2004 report commissioned by the General Assembly found that nearly one of every four children in foster care -- more than 2,000 -- was placed there to seek mental health treatment.

In his opinion, McDonnell said children should have access to services directly through a state program, known as the Comprehensive Services Act, without having to go through the foster care system.

"It is inconceivable that the best way to provide such services to a child and his family is by an interpretation that tears the family asunder," he said in his opinion. McDonnell also said the practice might violate the U.S. Constitution.

Although his opinion is advisory and does not carry the force of law, it can provide guidance. Officials at several local social service departments said yesterday that they were reviewing the opinion and weren't able to comment on how it might affect their day-to-day practices.

The opinion was sought by Del. William H. Fralin Jr. (R-Roanoke), who has unsuccessfully submitted legislation addressing the issue over the past several years. Fralin said yesterday that the opinion is an "important step" in addressing what he called a practice that "just didn't make any sense." He said that extra state money would probably be needed to pay for services.

Advocates who work with children said the opinion would help hundreds, if not thousands, of Virginia families who are struggling to get mental health services for their children.

"This is going to open up treatment opportunities for families who have exhausted all of their options," said Mary Dunne Stewart, policy director for Voices for Virginia's Children, an advocacy group in Richmond.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company