JEFFERSON CITY, MO. For two years, Donna Uhlmansiek tried to get her 10-year-old son admitted to a state mental hospital. Finally a health-care worker suggested she go to court and give custody of the boy to the state.
Uhlmansiek was horrified by the idea. Instead of giving up her son, she became part of a national movement to change state laws that encourage desperate parents unable to afford mental health care for their children to relinquish custody.
A dozen states recently have changed their laws to allow children to more easily receive mental health treatment without their parents having to relinquish custody, according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington. Other legislatures are considering such changes.
Middle-class families like the Uhlmansieks are most likely to relinquish custody of their children, experts say. That is because they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford doctors and hospitals when insurance falls short.
The Uhlmansieks, whose son suffers from manic depression and is mildly retarded, had private insurance. But like most plans, it provided only 30 days of inpatient care. That had already run out.
Ultimately, the Uhlmansieks decided they had no choice but to give up their son. But on the day they went to court two years ago, they met a juvenile court officer at the courthouse. And the officer pulled some strings to get the boy into a state mental hospital.
Parents who give up custody lose any say over their child's upbringing. And if the child is ultimately released from the mental hospital, the youngster can be placed in a foster home or another institution.
In many states, for parents to relinquish custody, a judge must decide that they are unable or unwilling to provide proper care. In some states, like Missouri, parents who take such a step also run the risk of being charged with abandonment or neglect.
"We love our child," Uhlmansiek said. "I was so angry that me and my husband would have to be charged with a crime just to get our son the care he needed."
Children's advocates said state legislatures should provide more money to mental health efforts that would keep children at home. But with many states facing budget deficits, that is unlikely to happen.
In Missouri, the Department of Mental Health said it can afford to treat just 20 percent of the 53,000 children it estimates would qualify for services.
"No parent should have to make the decisions to give up their child just to get them the help that they need," said Uhlmansiek, who lives in suburban St. Louis. "Things need to be changed."