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Bill provides parents custody of their mentally ill child as they receive state health services

February 18, 2004
By: Gaurav Ghose
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 1174 and HB 809 and SB 1003

JEFFERSON CITY - Stephen Osmon has a clear understanding of the challenges faced by the parents of a child with mental health problems -- the emotional, medical and financial challenges.

Osmon is a doctor at Washington University Medical Center whose child was diagnosed with autism at 15 months of age.

Early intervention and caring family support, Osmon added, have helped his son to become verbal and make great developmental strides.

Osmon was one of several witnesses who testified before legislators for bills intended to provide expanded support services for mentally-ill children and their families.

But about 600 Missouri families are not so lucky. The parents had to turn their children over to the state in order to provide them mental health care.

The House Health Committee passed the bill Wednesday 13-0. The Senate bill was approved earlier with unanimous vote.

The legislative measures aim to correct the existing law which says that parents, in order to get state-funded mental health care for a child, have to relinquish their control over the child. All families, regardless of their income, would be eligible for the mental health services.

Sen. Mike Gibbons, R-St. Louis County, said that the bill is trying to right one of the "horrible wrongs." It is a situation, he said, where the parents of mentally-ill children who run out of money, resources and insurance are forced into a trap: either to abandon their child or to give up their child to state custody in order to provide adequate care.

"And for this they pay a ferocious price," Gibbons said. "Not only do they lose all parental control, they have no access, they don't know when they are going to get custody of their child and cannot give any input into the treatment."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jodi Stefanick, R-St. Louis County, said that it puts the parents in control of their child's health care.

Under the bill, the Mental Health Department would decide on the range of services to be provided and coordinate the services with a local emphasis. State and local child-service agencies would be involved along with local schools. The child's family would actively take part in designing the individualized service plan for the child.

So far, there has been no opposition voiced to the bill in the legislature. Similar provisions were included in the broader foster care bill vetoed by the governor last year.

"Taking the issue separately this year, we hope that this will go through the process without any problems," Stefanick said.

She said she expects the House to pass the measure in a couple of weeks and have it signed by the governor before the spring break.