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Lawmakers plan to introduce legislation this month that they hope will make it unnecessary for parents to give up custody of their children just to get them treatment for mental illness.

The “Keeping Families Together” act would provide $55 million in federal matching grants over two years to help states improve the mental health services they provide for children.

The bill is to be sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.).

Collins, the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, held a two-day hearing in mid-July to examine why each year thousands of parents feel forced to give up their children in order to get them treated.

“Too often, parents of severely mentally ill children are advised that the only way they can obtain services, which can be out of reach for all but the wealthiest of families, is to relinquish custody and place the children in state welfare or juvenile justice systems,” Collins said at the hearing.

Placing their children in the custody of state or county services relieves parents of the financial burden of caring for them, witnesses at the hearing said.

According to a report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), in 2001, parents placed more than 12,700 children in welfare or juvenile justice systems to get treatment. The actual number is much higher, the GAO said, because its survey was incomplete and because many states do not track those cases.

Families that gave up their children came from all financial levels and the children’s illnesses strained the families’ ability to function, the report said. Mental health services for children are in short supply across the nation, it said.

According to a summary of the legislation provided by Collins’ office, the Keep Families Together Act would allow states to expand public health insurance programs to cover mental health treatment for eligible children and their families; provide public outreach and education programs; provide training for those who work with mentally ill children; help states track children who enter the welfare and juvenile justice systems to get treatment; and provide “wraparound” services such as family advocacy.

One of the goals of the legislation is to increase the number of professionals who can provide mental health services, said Andrea Hofelich, communications director for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Collins urged federal agencies to make it clear that parents are not required to give up their children in order to get services for them under several federal programs.

“Basically, it is not very clear whether they are supposed to give up custody of their children or not,” Hofelich said.

At least six states have laws that prohibit state and local agencies from requiring parents to relinquish custody in order for the state to pay to treat their children. Collins and other lawmakers hope more states will follow.

Collins is working on the legislation with the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry, Hofelich said.

CNCS Gets Surprise Gift

In a move surprising to many, the House has approved an increase in spending for the Corporation for National and Community Service in its bill covering the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development (HR 2861). The committee approved funding for the corporation for the first time since 1995; funding for the corporation has historically been approved in the Senate and subsequent House-Senate conference committees.

The bill, according to the House Appropriations Committee, would fund the corporation at $480 million for fiscal 2004, $96 million more than it received in fiscal 2003, but $118 million below the president’s request. That level of funding would support 55,000 AmeriCorps members, an increase of 5,000 over current authorized levels.

House approval came as programs that use AmeriCorps members nationally are struggling to convince Congress to approve an additional $100 million for the 2003 program year.

The provision was included in the appropriations bill for the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development.

Juvenile Justice and Drugs

Juvenile justice advocates are particularly concerned about funding levels for the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants in the Department of Justice appropriations bill (HR 2799), which the House approved July 23. The bill would fund the grants at $100 million, about $90 million below 2003 levels.

The Bush administration proposed eliminating the grants.

Overall, according to the House Appropriations Committee, the bill would provide $462 million for juvenile justice programs for fiscal 2004, $195 million more than the administration requested.

For the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the House approved $150 million for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, about the same as the current level. The Bush administration had requested $170 million.

The drug policy office funding is included in the bill that funds the departments of Treasury and Transportation.