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A Mother's Unspeakable Choice

Lavennia Coover describes what she had to do to her son as "the ultimate betrayal."

Last year, Coover took her 11-year-old son Skyler to an Omaha, Neb., emergency room to invoke Nebraska's safe haven law, allowing her to surrender her rights and turn him over to the state.

"That was the hardest time I've ever had," the mother of three said. "To kiss your son, tell him that you love him, and turn around and leave, not knowing when you're going to see him again."

In a profile in the April issue of GQ magazine, Coover details her struggles to raise Skyler, who struggles with bipolar disorder and was physically violent. Medication and therapy had drained all of her money and her hope -- leading her to what the magazine called her "unspeakable choice." Coover told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith that she felt she had no choice but to surrender her son to the state so that he could get the services that he needed. And when she turned him over, she did not know what would happen next.

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"I didn't know if I would ever see him again," she told Smith. "I didn't know where he was going to go, I didn't know what was going to happen to him."

Her choice to invoke the safe haven law, which in Nebraska did not specify an age limit for children to be turned over to the state, put her in the crosshairs of an international media firestorm. She and other safe haven parents were criticized for their decisions, she says, and accused of being bad parents. Coover was even charged with negligence by the state's juvenile court system, which was eventually dropped. But now, Coover says, others are beginning to understand her plight.

"There are senators now that realize there is a problem and that these people aren't bad parents," she said. "They are parents that are looking for help."

The safe haven laws are also exposing serious cracks in the nation's mental health system.

"With many of the safe haven parents, they're struggling right now in the courts to get their child back in their home," said Nebraska State Sen. Amanda McGill. "They don't want to be separated from them; they just want to get the services their kid needs so that the child can try to lead a normal life."

Leslie Byers fought the same battle more than 10 years ago. Her daughter Megan, now 23, was also diagnosed as bipolar, and began showing symptoms at 2 years old. Like Coover, Byers had exhausted her family's health insurance and she made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Out of desperation, she invoked a nearly identical law, called custody relinquishment, in order to get her daughter help.

"I want the state to apologize to me and my daughter for the only choice they gave us," Byers said. "And so many families need that apology."

It's a battle that Coover says is ongoing.

"It's going to be a fight for us to be able to get the services that we need for our children and to get the state to realize that there is a lack of services," she said.

Coover's son Skyler has been gone for six months. She says he is in foster care and currently receiving the services that he needs, and that she now visits him every week for about four hours. And on April 17, she will go back to court to try and bring him back home with her, continuing her struggle to make her family whole again.

"There's no reason any family has to lose custody because their child was born with something they had no control over," she said. "They're not bad kids; they need help."

A Mother's "Unspeakable Choice"

Read GQ's piece about Lavennia Coover.

The Nebraska Family Support Network is an advocacy group on a mission to "empower Nebraska children and families affected by mental, emotional, or behavioral health issues through peer mentoring, education, and advocacy, to create brighter futures."

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