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Families in crisis need a bailout, too

By H. Thomas Wells Jr. and Judge Patricia A. Macías

In the past few months, more than 30 children — mostly teenagers — were abandoned by distressed parents at Nebraska hospitals. Some parents came from faraway states. In response, the state revised its “safe haven” child drop-off law to make it only applicable to newborns. We’ve been alarmed by these heart-wrenching developments but see an opportunity for government leaders to learn from Nebraska’s experience.

Nebraska’s change of the law, alone, doesn’t correct the underlying problem, which is how to offer and promote appropriate support for adolescents in need, especially community-based mental heath and behavioral health services and substance abuse treatment. That challenge faces communities across the country. While the public perceives these adolescents as “troubled” youth, many come from difficult backgrounds, volatile homes or impoverished neighborhoods. Many suffer from undiagnosed or improperly treated disabilities. Some have been victims of neglect or abuse or exposed to domestic violence. Most have parents struggling to meet their needs, not knowing where to turn.

No parent should feel as though their only option is to relinquish their child’s care to a child welfare or juvenile justice agency. Instead, we call upon governments to:

  • Convene executive, legislative and judicial branch inquiries into the inadequacies of mental and behavioral health and substance abuse services for children and youth. Ongoing research finds these services grossly inadequate. Recently enacted federal mental health and substance abuse “health insurance parity” legislation suggests we plan, at federal and state levels, for how to ensure that parents, regardless of income, have prompt access to community-based services and safe and appropriate residential care facilities for youth in need.
  • Improve interagency youth resource coordination through legislation and policy. Helping meet family needs for aiding at-risk youth must be a shared responsibility among multiple government agencies and the private sector. Juvenile and family courts, working closely with the organized bar, should lead efforts to ensure that child welfare, juvenile justice, community mental health, substance abuse agencies and civic and business leaders team to better deliver services and eliminate “silos” that restrict funding for services to the agency in which a family is first involved. They must find ways to share funding resources that meet needs of youth before becoming involved with juvenile or criminal court systems. By unifying efforts, youth and families will be treated holistically, increasing the percentage of youth who successfully transition to adult independence.
  • Help ensure that parents are aware of viable community-based service and treatment options for children and youth, and then provide assistance to help parents navigate through those systems. Legislation introduced in Congress would help keep families together by mandating state planning for mental health treatment/services for children and youth. The proposed goal is to help kids with emotional or behavioral problems without the state taking over responsibility for their care. Desperate parents with means to do so have been sending troubled youth to distant, very expensive, and often unregulated residential programs, a practice many in Congress and the Government Accountability Office believe endangers youth and should be governed by minimum standards of care.

Scenes of parents leaving their children in Nebraska hospitals stirred our national consciousness. We hope communities across the country will, even in these difficult times, take a closer look at how they serve our most vulnerable children and youth in crisis.

• H. Thomas Wells Jr. is president of the American Bar Association and Judge Patricia Macias is president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

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