Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #7: Specialized Services for Kids of Parents with Severe Mental Illness

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who completed Congressional internships. The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund. Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington. Today we highlight the recommendation of Cierrena Spataro-Haynes, 24, a graduate school student at the University of Wisconsin.

The Proposal

Initiate a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation and report on services and assistance rendered to foster youth whose birth parent(s) suffers from a serious mental illness (SMI). Then, use the findings from that report to craft a Substance and Mental Health Services Administration grant to promote evidence-based services to foster children of parents with SMI.

The Argument

And Adult SMI is defined for federal purposes as a mental illness, suffered by someone over 18, that “has resulted in functional impairment which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

According to research cited by Spataro-Haynes, parenthood is frequently one of those major life activities that is disrupted. According to a 2011 study she cites, between 70 percent and 80 percent of mothers with an SMI lost custody of their children.

Because mental illness has a hereditary component to it, this leaves children of these parents in a risky position if they head into foster care. Spataro-Haynes cites studies that among children of parents with an SMI, there is a 55 percent chance of developing some mental illness and a 30 percent chance of developing an SMI.

Since very little is known beyond that, Spataro-Haynes argues that the federal government should start from the beginning and learn what child welfare agencies are doing (if anything) for children in this situation.

In Her Own Words

Cierrena Spataro-Haynes

“At seven years old, I had to make sense of the symptoms of my biological mother’s illness without specialized support. Initially, I felt confused and afraid. As a teen I felt angry and isolated, and feared that I would develop a mental illness. To this day, many children of parents with an SMI like schizophrenia have no support from the child welfare system for the unique issues they face, despite facing double the risk of developing schizophrenia than the general population.”

The Chronicle’s Take

Spataro-Haynes should type up a request for this GAO report and walk right down to the offices of Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). He has demonstrated a keen interested in how systems are addressing the mental health needs of foster youth. He is particularly loathsome of the frequent use of multiple psychotropic drugs — he has described them as “mind-bending” — on kids in care.

Hmmm…Do you think failing to detect or assess mental health problems in young children born to parents with SMI might alleviate long-term use of psychotropics? Pretty good chance! Mental illness has a hereditary component, but certainly doesn’t doom all children to a tragic inheritance.

Social and environmental influences can “activate” a disorder in a person at hereditary risk. So leaving children confused, angry and terrified about it, as Spataro-Haynes described from her experience, is about the worst thing we can do.

We would only add that the GAO report should find two separate things on a state-by-state basis:

Does the state have any specialized protocol or policy for children who are removed from a home because of a parent’s SMI?

Are there public and/or private providers in the state to whom foster kids are referred for help and assessment if they are removed from a home because of a parent’s SMI?

Responses to the first question would establish whether or not the current world of child welfare views this as in important issue. Responses to the second question would establish a baseline of study for an eventual SAMHSA grant.

Click here to read Williams’ entire proposal and those of her fellow FYI participants.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at