Psychiatric lockouts double in two years

December 14, 2013

Flickr/Tim Lauer
An empty hallway. Parents sometimes leave youth at psychiatric hospitals and refuse to pick them up. The process provokes the state to take custody and provide residential care.

The names of the family in this article have been changed to protect their privacy. 

When parents cannot get a child proper psychiatric care, they sometimes abandon the child and relinquish custody to the state. The state is then required by law to provide services.

That relinquishment is called a psychiatric lockout. In 2011, 38 families gave up custody in a psychiatric lockout. Now, two years later, that number has doubled to 76. Lawyers, advocates, and service providers say most of these families have reached a point of extreme desperation.

Sue Franklin says she did.

She has four kids, two girls and two boys. Sitting on her couch, her toddler daughter snuggles next to her with a book. She says her oldest child, now 17, was usually good with his baby sister. Adam would play games and talk to her very sweetly. But he also suffers from schizophrenia and could change in an instant.

“In one of his fits, he started screaming, 'Get me away from her, get me away from her. I am going to hurt her,'” said Franklin.

Franklin said at age 3, Adam would scream for hours on end.

“Then at 11, he started doing really horrible things involving blood and other body orifices and saying he was commanded by the demons. And then he acted confused like he didn’t know me,” she said.

After many doctor visits and handfuls of medications, he finally got a drug that worked. Franklin also got Adam into community services funded by the state. For a while things got better. But around age 15, Adam became more aggressive.

After years of trauma, it seems like Franklin sees her troubles as ordinary. She rattles them off, like a grocery list, counting the incidents on her fingers. “We locked up all the knives, he threatened to kill us with them. He was picking up pictures and smashing them. Throwing chairs at us,” she said.

The doctor recommended that Adam go into residential care where he could get around-the-clock services and intense therapy. There is a state grant that pays for that kind of care, and Adam had used it for other services. But Franklin says it denied her request for residential. The state department in charge of that service rejects the claim and says it works to get every child the best services for his or her needs.

Related: The shocking drop in services for mentally ill children in Illinois

Franklin couldn’t afford to send Adam to residential on her own. Services can cost more than $100,000. She works as a nurse and her husband is an airplane mechanic. She was terrified they could not give Adam the constant supervision he needed.

“My sisters were thinking, 'we are afraid to hear about you on the news',” she said. “Your family is going to be the family where all the children are dead.”

One day, Franklin thought her son was playing video games. It was one way she kept him occupied. She could hear the video game noise playing in the next room.

Then suddenly the doorbell rang. Her neighbor informed her that Adam had attempted to remove the clothes from a girl who was around 11 years old, while she was jumping on the trampoline in the Franklins’ backyard. The neighbor’s daughter, around the same age, had witnessed it.

Having few options, Franklin took Adam to the emergency room. Once there, she considered abandoning him, knowing the state would be required to take care of his needs in a way she could not.

“We almost walked out four times,” she said. “We made it past the nurse station, and she was like, ‘I am calling DCFS, right now.’”

Franklin worried her nurse’s license could be revoked if they were charged with neglect by DCFS, the Department of Children and Family Services. She also worried the agency might take away Adam’s siblings.

So instead she filed a police report about Adam’s actions and says she sent it to the state agency from which she needed approval for residential. She said she never heard back.

Franklin did not make eye contact when she told the next part of the story. Her eyes were fixed on an invisible spot on the floor. She sat very still, as if in a trance. A digital photo frame, showing pictures of her smiling kids, flashed over her shoulder.

She said shortly after the first incident with the neighbor, Adam did the unthinkable to his adolescent sister: “My daughter in shock came running into the next room. He had forced himself on her and chased [her] up to her room. She locked the door. She came out because she thought it was clear, and he forced himself on her again. Thankfully he didn’t get her clothes off.”

This time, Franklin took Adam to the police station. Because of where and how he touched his sister, it was considered molestation.

“It was determined that he could no longer be in our home, by DCFS. And we actually agreed with them,” said Franklin.

In the end, Franklin did not have to abandon Adam. Franklin says DCFS took custody and deemed it a no-fault dependency case. She is heartbroken to have lost custody, but is thankful Adam is in residential care.

Attorney Brooke Whitted works with families who have mentally ill youths. He is also president of the board that runs the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a prominent residential care facility and school for mentally ill youth.

He said psychiatric lockouts have become common enough recently that he actually keeps a memo on hand to explain it to families.

“Custody relinquishment is an increasing issue because of people’s increasing desperation to get services for their kids,” he said.

One service Whitted says should catch some these youths is called the Individual Care Grant (ICG). It pays for severely mentally ill kids to get residential and community care. But over the past few years, the grant has become increasingly hard to get.

In 2006, 124 Illinois youth were approved for the grant. In 2013, only 11 were approved -- in the whole state.

Heather O'Donnell works at the mental health advocacy organization, Thresholds.

She said the psychiatric lockouts are not unique to Illinois. “This does happen in other states. But other states have laws to protect against it and they adequately fund the services that are necessary like the ICG program and other services for children and young adults,” she said.

A spokesperson from the Illinois Division of Mental Health says it is only responsible for a small slice of the services meant for these youths. It is currently reviewing the ICG and advocates are watching the process closely. So are parents like Susan Franklin who had an ICG and tried to use it to help Adam.

“My daughter should have never been victimized. That girl should have never been victimized,” said Franklin.