Some Parents Surrender Custody

Sam Cheek, left, and his 15-year-old son Andrew.

When Sam Cheek and his wife, Maria, spend time with their 15-year-old son Andrew, the moments are precious because they know they are few.

CBS Correspondent Mika Brzezinski reports from Glen Burnie, Maryland that Cheek never thought he'd have to consider giving up his son.

"That was the hardest decision I've ever made in my life," says Cheek.

Andrew has suffered from severe mental illness since he was five years old. Bouts of violence, suicide attempts and at least eight hospitalizations have nearly destroyed his family.

"I've lost jobs because of this," Cheek explains. "When Andrew was living at home, no one could control him."

The bills spiraled out of control too; a staggering $250,000 of debt forced the family to declare bankruptcy, and to give up custody of their son to the state.

Cheek says that was the only way to get the funding for him to get in a residential treatment center.

It may sound extreme, but it's not as rare as one might expect. A report issued last month by the General Accounting Office - the investigative arm of Congress - says thousands of families are surrendering custody of their children in order to get them the help they need.

The report says that in the year 2001, at least 12,700 families took the drastic measure of formally relinquishing custody of their children so that they would be eligible to receive state-paid mental health services. Most of the children in these cases are adolescent boys.

"It's a shameful practice that should not be happening," says mental health patients' rights advocate Tammy Seltzer, of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in Washington, D.C.

The Center says custody relinquishment may be even more prevalent than the GAO study suggests, since officials in 32 states did not respond to the GAO's request for data on the subject.

The group notes that although 13 states have banned the practice of forcing parents to make these kinds of choices, the ban alone is no solution - because it doesn't improve access to medical care.

It says one step that might help is the Family Opportunity Act - awaiting an as yet unscheduled vote on Capitol Hill - which would reduce the need for custody relinquishment by expanding access to Medicaid-financed mental health services

Seltzer says children who do end up as wards of the state often wind up either in child welfare or the juvenile justice systems, neither of which is set up to deal with mental illness.

Seltzer wonders if parents making these decisions really know what they're getting into.

"We get calls from parents who are not allowed to see their children," she says. "Their children may be injured. They may be sick and the parents are not even informed."

Once the custody was changed over, Cheek stopped getting phone calls about his son. Cheek realized when he gave up custody, he had also given up his right to be a parent.

"It got where I was never notified if there were any medication changes - if anything happened to Andrew," Cheek recalls.

And Cheek says if he could turn back time, he would have taken on the cost and the risk of keeping Andrew at home, just to maintain his parental control.

"I want him home! I want him right with us," says Cheek.

But for now, Sam Cheek has no idea if he will get his son back, or how he'd pay for it.