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A broken system leads Georgia parents to abandon their children in desperate bid to help them

A broken system leads Georgia parents to abandon their children in desperate bid to help them

Picture of Rebecca Lindstrom
(Photo by Nenad Stojkovic via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by Nenad Stojkovic via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Trading custody for care. It’s a term that’s been around awhile, but unless you’re the one confronted with making such a decision, you probably don’t know much about it. It’s basically when parents decide to surrender their child to the state’s welfare agency, in belief the child will get access to better medical or behavioral health care.

As a mom, I couldn’t understand why a parent would even consider it an option. But when our station covered the arrest of a parent that had abandoned her teenage son with Down syndrome at a nearby hospital, I needed to know what would lead a parent to this cliff.

It takes a lot of courage to admit to one person — let alone an audience — that you abandoned your child. But I knew I needed that first person perspective to inform my reporting. There is no data that can truly tell the story. So that’s where I started, looking for parents who would open up about such a tremendous decision. 

Their stories were heartbreaking. One mom told me, “I love my son. I love him so much but it’s like, am I the best thing for him? Somedays I don’t feel that way. What is he learning from me? How am I helping him? What can I do? I feel helpless. I’m his advocate and I feel helpless.”

Hearing their stories, and even researching the topic, made me feel helpless too. If it weren’t for my commitment to the 2020 Data Fellowship, I honestly might have given up.

Every time I thought I had a handle on the subject, I learned something new that made me feel I didn’t know much at all. I quickly realized that Georgia’s mental and behavioral health system was debilitatingly fractured. Just trying to figure out who was in charge of what program left me with a fuzzy image of accountability. If I couldn’t figure it out, how was a parent in crisis supposed to?

I realized I was going to have to narrow my focus and allow the data to drive the story. Who were the children most at risk of being abandoned? The answer, I found, was teenagers with severe behavioral problems and quite often developmental disabilities. According to the Georgia’s child welfare agency, more than 1,200 children in the five-year period I studied had been relinquished, not because of abuse or neglect, but because their parents didn’t know how to get them help. 

The number already seemed staggering, but while working on my second story I realized my research was only taking into account those families that had ultimately made the decision to turn over custody. There were two more groups to consider: those still struggling, often putting their own safety and jobs on the line, to get their child medically necessary care, and on the other end of the spectrum, those who have let the criminal justice system take over. 

All of these children, regardless of category, were being failed by the same system of care.

I spent days trying to dissect the various experiences by each family I hoped to profile, seeking to figure out where things had gotten off track. Even with hours of interviews, it was hard to pick any one point where a different decision or program could have altered the outcome. I couldn’t. The problem wasn’t one thing — it was the whole system. 

If you are diagnosed with cancer, you are given treatment options, information on where to go for counseling, a list of supportive services that can help during your therapy and regular appointments to evaluate progress. In mental health, parents are left to figure all of that out and to be aware of what the next step might be if one treatment method fails to meet their child’s needs. Even more discouraging, those within the industry often don’t know themselves. As a result, those who decide whether a procedure or treatment is medically necessary and worthy of insurance coverage make inconsistent decisions and beneficial programs go underutilized.

Throughout this project I had to be willing to revisit my road map and readjust the story to go where the research led. I never imagined I’d be writing about mental health parity and workforce shortages when I started this project. I was encouraged to find workgroups already looking into these issues. They seemed grateful someone was finally telling these stories and providing personal narratives to help those not entrenched in the work understand what was at stake. 

But Jacob’s family makes me wonder if the state is up for the challenge. His parents gave up custody this year after their insurance coverage said it was done paying for the 16-year-old’s treatments. But the court and even child welfare knew Jacob did need more — a lot more. The kicker is that Jacob’s father is a government employee. It is the state’s own health insurance plan that denied Jacob care. Now he gets care through another government program, Medicaid. If it won’t pay, state tax dollars will have to do it. His parents question whether the decision has actually improved his care. But they know it has added to another layer of trauma that he will have to endure. 

Some of the proposed changes to help address the needs of these children can be made administratively, like streamlining paperwork, enforcement of mental health parity, and waiver requests to expand billable programs available under the states’ coverage.  

Other fixes will require coordination with universities and technical colleges to revamp or expand training programs and recruit more students to the fields that work with this population. Lawmakers will have to decide whether to better fund programs and increase reimbursements to improve access and finally build that continuum of care that’s currently missing.

Tom Rawlings, the director of Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services, told me, “Money doesn’t solve things. What solves things is the right amount of money plus the right service at the right time.”

It’s hard to argue we’re spending money the right amount of money the right way, when we know in 2019 alone, the state had to hotel more than 600 children. Those are high-needs kids, often abandoned, with nowhere else to go and no therapeutic environment willing to take them. They tend to struggle with aggression, making them a danger to staff and other patients at residential treatment facilities that lack the workforce to monitor them. Thus, they end up being watched 24/7 by workers at a hotel for roughly $1,400 a day. That’s nearly four times as expensive as a residential treatment facility and five times more expensive than therapeutic foster care.

I asked families and those who work with these children what might happen if we don’t figure this out, or at least chip away at making the system better. Their responses: Homelessness. Suicide. Incarceration. Sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. 

Everyone agrees to really help these children it will take a village. It will take friends and family willing to offer respite. It will take more aggressive, wholistic case management to provide children what they need, not what is easy to offer. It will take a continuum of care to track and support the child from the highest level of intensive therapy to living back at home in day-to-day life. 

Finding the families willing to talk was easy. Finding solutions that will make a difference in their lives has proven tough. I am now part of their journey. I know too much to walk away. In raising awareness, I hope others will feel the same. It’s time to grow that village.



The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


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