The Austin American-Statesman recently ran an excellent article by Chuck Lindell (5/19/13) regarding the need for some families to relinquish custody of their child with serious emotional disturbance (SED) to the state in order to get their child the mental health services they need. In addition to the heartbreak of relinquishment, these parents must also suffer the embarrassing and punitive reality of their names being placed on the statewide abuse and neglect registry. In other words, they are labeled as child abusers even if no abuse has occurred. Child relinquishment is a horrible practice that needs to be fixed. Parents of children with other types of disabilities aren’t forced to relinquish custody if they need emergency/crisis services or treatment, and neither should families of children with serious mental health conditions.
As a state, we need to explore and develop better ways to support families in crisis, regardless of the disability. Developing well-trained therapeutic support families is one avenue to investigate. The funding requested by the Department of State Health Services to divert children from the child protective services system is a step forward in addressing the problem, but it will likely not be enough. Senate Bill 44 (SB 44), authored by Senator Judith Zaffirini and sponsored in the House by Representative Cindy Burkett, does more than simply move the cost of services from one agency to another. It requires the agencies to study and recommend solutions to end this horrible practice. Additionally, until other options are available, SB 44 requires the Department of Family and Protective Services to discuss with families the option of joint conservatorship with the state when relinquishment is the only option.
The current practice of child relinquishment causes irreparable emotional harm to families and adds abandonment to the already fragile mental health state of the child. We would never consider telling the parents of a child with cancer that they must relinquish custody in order to get the medical care their child needs. Families of children with SED are no different — the only difference is the diagnosis. Our tax dollars should not be spent on tearing families apart, but should be spent on finding ways to support families and children in crisis.