Mentally Ill Children To Get More Services

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

The administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has directed local governments to offer more services to children who have severe mental health problems. The move is an effort to keep parents from having to place children in foster care to receive services, a controversial practice that has forced many Virginians to choose between raising their children and getting them the help they need.

For years, some parents of children who have schizophrenia, severe depression, bipolar disorder and other maladies have relinquished custody so their children could receive care. Often, their insurance didn't cover the high costs of care, and their incomes were too high for them to qualify for Medicaid.

But children can receive subsidized treatment if they are in foster care, so parents chose that system, sometimes because social service agencies advised them it was their only option, state officials said.

The practice of relinquishing custody 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 group homes and other treatment facilities.

The administration's directive to local governments instructs them to broaden their interpretation of the program that provides mental health care, known as the Comprehensive Services Act, to offer assistance to more children. The action also sets guidelines for the types of behavior that will be covered.

"There has . . . been inconsistent local administration on determining eligibility for [such] services," wrote Anthony Conyers Jr., commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services in a memorandum co-authored with two other high-level administration officials. "As a result, some families may not receive services for their children to which they are legally entitled, without relinquishing custody."

The directive comes several months after Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued an advisory opinion backing the same policy change. McDonnell's opinion, however, held no force of law, and advocates said yesterday that the administration's action mandates change.

It remains unclear how many children will be affected by the new directive, although officials estimated that it could be in the hundreds. A General Assembly analysis done this year estimated that if, for instance, 400 young people qualified, it would cost state and local governments about $6.8 million to offer the services.

Lobbyists who represent the interests of Virginia counties, which would have to share in the funding, said they were worried about paying for the policy shift.

"We're concerned about the large influx of children that come into this program that all of a sudden demand funding," said Dean Lynch, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties. "I'm sure the state has to have the same concerns."

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