Thursday, May 20, 2004

County seeks to reunite kids

Custody of mentally ill may be returned

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A handful of Hamilton County families forced to give up custody of their mentally ill children to get treatment for them may soon be able to get their kids back.

Two of the three county commissioners said Wednesday they intend to end the practice here, although the details have to be worked out.

Their declaration follows a Cincinnati Enquirer series in March that found up to 1,800 families statewide have been forced to give up legal rights to their children to get the government to pay for mental health treatment.

"We can't control what happens statewide, but we can control what happens in the county," Commissioner Todd Portune said. "That is not a practice that I believe represents the values of Hamilton County. We want to keep families together."

Fellow Commissioner Phil Heimlich agreed, while John Dowlin said he was unsure if the county could make changes without being in conflict with Ohio law.

Forced surrender of custody is rare here, said Laurie Petrie, spokeswoman for Hamilton County Job and Family Services. "These are fairly isolated situations," she said.

It's difficult to pinpoint how many children in Hamilton County are receiving treatment for serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia.

Bills for inpatient treatment can reach $1,000 a day, and many insurance plans limit mental health coverage. The government pays for the health care of children in state custody, but their parents give up any say in where their children are sent, for how long and what medications they receive.

One measure in the General Assembly would force insurance companies to cover mental health care.

Barbara Fitch of Indian Hill, an advocate for better mental health treatment for children, was pleasantly surprised by the commissioners' effort Wednesday.

"This is the first time I've ever heard of anyone doing anything at the county level, but I'm all for anything that might work," said Fitch, a trustee at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "We as a country owe it to our children to provide the help they need when it comes to health care."

Officials at the Hamilton County Job and Family Services will attend a meeting Monday with commissioners to explore how the county can keep parents from having to give up custody of their ill children. They also will discuss how much such a policy might cost the county.

The meeting, open to the public, takes place at 9:30 a.m. on the sixth floor of 138 E. Court St., downtown.


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