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Ohio's Governor Now Has A Plan To Stop Custody Relinquishment

Mark Butler's son Andrew needed to be placed in a residential mental health treatment center, but insurance wouldn't pay.
Paige Pfleger
Mark Butler's son Andrew needed to be placed in a residential mental health treatment center, but insurance wouldn't pay.

In May, WOSU shared the story of the Butler family, whose son Andrew has a severe intellectual disability that causes sometimes-violent outbursts.

Social workers told Mark that his son needed to be put into a residential treatment center to balance his medications and unlearn his violent behavior. Medicaid wouldn’t pay for it, nor would Mark’s private insurance. 

“The only way to get him that care that he needed was to call our children services agency,” said father Mark Butler. “And ultimately, in order for them to fund that care, we would have to surrender custody to the state.”

Some families like Mark’s have given up custody of their children when there are no other options left for securing mental health treatment. Other families have reported feeling forced into it by children's services agencies or having the custody of their other children be threatened. 

The Butlers and other families like them asked the state government for a solution that would help them get the help they need without relinquishing their children.

Now, the governor’s office has provided an answer, with $68 million and a three-prong plan to modernize the systems that care for children with special needs. 

Stop The Bleeding

The first step of Gov. Mike DeWine's plan is the development of a state-wide program to give financial support to families at risk of custody relinquishment, or who already relinquished custody. The state’s Department of Medicaid and the Department of Job and Family Services will tackle this together with about $8 million to support families in need. 

This team will also provide resources and expertise to local systems who also interact with this population, such as county children's services agencies. 

Kristi Burre at Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services says county agencies are already really burdened by other issues.  

"Those agencies have really been hit hard by the opioid epidemic and placement costs have really gone through the roof," Burre says. "Recognizing that some of those cases are custody relinquishments where we have kids that maybe could be with their parents or in the custody of their parents but the level of care that they need is so high." 

Another $20 million will go to these county agencies to assist with costs for kids who have been relinquished, or are at risk of being relinquished. 

A Plan For Prevention

The third part of DeWine’s plan is the development of an action plan to reduce custody relinquishment. The group Ohio Family and Children First will work with groups around the state on the plan. 

It's unclear how many families will be helped by DeWine’s funding, because the state does not keep track of cases of custody relinquishment.

By focusing more on relinquishment, the groups involved hope to get a better understanding of how often it happens so they can measure the efficacy of these programs. 

"The hope is we continue to reduce the number of kids that get to the point where they need that level of care," Burre says, "and then work with all of our providers across the state to manage some of those costs differently."

Paige Pfleger is a former reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.