State Looks To Help Families Of Kids With Severe Behaviors
COLUMBUS, Ohio — By the time Julie Callahan reported herself to child protective services, she had done everything in her power to avoid making that phone call.
Callahan never abused her teenage son. She didn’t neglect him.
All she did was try, and fail through no fault of her own, to secure the care and treatment 14-year-old Jackson Hurt needs so he won’t be such a danger to himself and others.
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So he can stop putting his head through windows. Stop blackening his mother’s eyes and pulling out her hair. Stop traumatizing his younger brother and older sister, who had to be instructed on how to inform police that Jackson doesn’t mean to harm his family and that he has severe autism and mental illness and can’t help it.
“In my mind, I knew I was doing the right thing,” Callahan said of her decision to turn to Franklin County Children Services last fall. “In my heart, it was the worst.”
The Grove City resident is among an untold number of Ohio parents who have had to relinquish custody of a troubled child simply because they don’t have unlimited amounts of money and insurance coverage. Surrendering custody to a system designed to protect kids from abusive or inadequate caregivers is bitter, they say, but it’s sometimes the only way to obtain desperately needed services.
“I was treated, at first, as a mom who was abandoning her child,” Callahan said. “I had to have a pretty thick skin.”
State and local officials have long said that no parent should have to make such a heart-wrenching choice. But the past few years of attempts to set aside funds that can be tapped to prevent custody relinquishment haven’t produced much in the way of additional support for families.
The state’s last two-year budget, for example, included $10 million that was supposed to assist so-called “multisystem youths” — those who need help from various service systems such as disabilities, child welfare and mental health — who were at risk of being removed from their homes. The money was drawn from federal welfare funds, came with strings and the state didn’t devise a good system for distribution.
As a result, the hard-won “crisis fund” went largely unspent.
“The goal of the state should always be to maintain families,” said state Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark. “You scratch your head and say, ‘How is this loving mother or father having to make the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish custody?'”
Hottinger introduced an amendment to the biennial budget bill last week that would provide $6 million in the first year and $12 million in the second specifically to “prevent the use of custody relinquishment as the only means for parents to get care and treatment for multisystem youth.”
The money would be separate from Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed increase for children and family services, much of which would go to child welfare agencies overwhelmed by the state’s opioid crisis.
Hottinger said the funds to prevent custody relinquishment, if approved next month as part of the budget, could be used to help parents pay for services not covered by Medicaid or private insurance, such as therapy, in-home and residential care.
“People are recognizing that there’s got to be a better way to support these families,” said Marla Root of the Ohio Autism Insurance Coalition, a group that advocates for improved insurance coverage for autism spectrum disorders.
Tamisha McKenzie, of the East Side, surrendered custody of her teenage daughter twice — in 2015 and 2017 — to obtain psychiatric care. But McKenzie often found herself excluded from treatment discussions, and a records mistake once kept her from visiting her child at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“I was turned away at a time when my daughter needed me most,” McKenzie told a state Senate committee this month.
Whitehall resident Mark Butler testified at that hearing, too, and will be back this week to press for Hottinger’s amendment.
He and his wife reluctantly gave up custody of Andrew, now 21, in 2014. Andrew was placed in a treatment center in southern Ohio — one of a very few in the state — and his parents drove 2½ hours each way, every weekend for two years, to stay in contact.
Butler said they traveled “over 25,000 miles. That is longer than the circumference of the Earth.”
He felt both fear and humiliation when an attorney was appointed as a guardian ad litem for Andrew, who has severe autism. Butler wondered how a stranger could understand his son who is nonverbal better than he.
“I am still frustrated that no one can look me in the eye and give me a straight answer when I ask, ‘Why?'” Butler told legislators. “How is this acceptable? I ask you as a father who was forced to surrender custody of his son: Please work to end forced custody relinquishment in Ohio.”
Callahan’s son, Jackson, has been at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center since October. So far, case managers haven’t found an opening at a residential treatment center that meets his needs and is acceptable to children services, Callahan said.
“Over 45 places for kids with severe behavior have turned us down,” she said, explaining that custody relinquishment is far from the only obstacle. In Ohio and throughout the nation, residential services are scarce for youth with severe developmental disabilities and mental illness.
Jackson is a big, strong kid who cannot speak and is prone to violent outbursts. “It’s not like having a baby,” Callahan said. “It’s like having a 200-pound baby who gets angry in the night.”
Callahan could spend every second of her time and then some on Jackson, but she has a job and two other children. Her husband, Brad, is doing all he can to help but now is undergoing cancer treatment.
“We want him to be part of our family,” Callahan said of her middle child. “We don’t want to send him away.”
In a photograph taken during a beach vacation, Jackson appears with his family. But he wasn’t really there.
Callahan said her son was in respite care, “so we Photoshopped him in.” Jackson’s grandmother wanted a picture of how things ought to be.
© 2019 The Columbus Dispatch
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