This story has been corrected from the original printed version in which an error appeared in reference to Sen. Pat Dougherty's name.
JEFFERSON CITY — Every week, people in Missouri struggle with the decision between keeping custody of their child or seeking the best mental health care for him or her. Two of Missouri’s government agencies are working to avoid that decision.
On Wednesday, the departments of Mental Health and Social Services began pilot programs in two circuits to keep children requiring mental health care in their guardian’s custody. These circuits cover St. Louis, Audrain, Montgomery and Warren counties.
Jim Harrison, the Missouri Children’s Division’s assistant deputy director, said the program helps parents know their options before they feel the need to relinquish custody of the child. It also will provide targeted training for Department of Mental Health agents in the pilot areas.
“We essentially try to help the family problem-solve through this,” Harrison said. “It’s an issue of access to services which they may not know of.”
Missouri Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, said the program was important, and applauded the agencies for beginning work on it.
“I think that it is roughly one of the most responsible and moral things that we as government can do,” he said.
Dougherty said she liked the idea because she believes no parent should be put in a situation where they have to turn over custody of a child to the state simply because they lack the necessary financial resources but still want to help.
Citizens for Missouri’s Children representative Joe Squillace said that the program will help taxpayers as well.
“It’s cheaper to provide services in the community and in the child’s home using state dollars than it is to keep the kid in a mental institution,” he said.
Parents usually face the dilemma of whether or not to keep their child due to financial concerns of continuing health care, according to Dougherty.
“They have no insurance, or may have exhausted that insurance, or they may not have been able to get it because if you have a child with a serious illness like that, insurance companies won’t touch it,” he said.
The programs are set up in circuits because cases of parent custody come before the circuit courts.
Harrison lined out specific reasons why the 12th and 21st circuits were chosen. The 21st circuit, which is St. Louis County, is a large metropolitan area that frequently has cases involving relinquished custody. The 12th circuit, containing Audrain, Montgomery and Warren counties, will allow the agencies to study a rural circuit in which the DMH already has two agents.
If the pilot goes well, Harrison said the agencies will make any necessary revisions and expand the program after three months to the rest of the state. He was optimistic about the program, but did not know what results to expect.
“That’s kind of why we’re running it,” he said. “We’ll have to see how it works.”