Environment & Health

A Desperate Bargain

Throughout the country parents of children with severe mental illness feel pressured to give up custody to obtain treatment

Key Findings

  • Parents giving up custody in order to get their kids mental healthcare happens less than it used to. But it still occurs in 44 states, even though 26 of them have statutes and other policies to prevent it.

  • In CT “uncared for due to specialized needs” petitions are a red flag. Lawyers say they usually mean parents are giving up custody because they can’t care for their kids. From 2011 - 2018, there were over 1000 cases like this in CT.

  • When children struggling with mental illness are removed by child protective services agencies, they're not only separated from their families; parents also lose the right to make medical decisions for those kids.

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  • Excellence in Journalism Award

Each year in America, parents of children with severe mental illness feel pressured to relinquish custody to the state so their child can receive residential treatment. Our investigation delves into how this phenomenon is playing out in Connecticut, where a group of parents have been pushing the state to stop the practice. We tell the story of one mom, Stephanie Priestman, whose 14-year-old daughter, Sami, is at the center of a years-long custody battle with the state's Department of Children and Families (DCF).

  • Waiting for Tearah

    Many parents in the U.S. whose children suffer from mental illness can’t afford residential treatment when it’s recommended by their doctors. Juliana Schatz Preston reports.

Sami was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. She was non-verbal and could get overwhelmed and start screaming easily. As Sami got older, it got harder to take care of her. Stephanie says she sought help, but program after program told her that Sami was too high-needs. Stephanie took Sami to the emergency room five times in two years. Each time, Sami would be released and Stephanie would go back to looking for treatment options. During a hospital stay in 2014, Stephanie declined powerful psychotropic drugs prescribed for Sami by one of the doctors. The consequences for refusing the “treatment plan” presented her were more serious than she imagined.


  • Schatz Preston appeared on WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show to discuss her investigation into Connecticut’s custody-for-care approach.

After Sami was discharged, Stephanie got a call from a social worker with DCF. After a surprise home visit, and a series of meetings, Sami was removed from Stephanie's home. She was placed in a therapeutic foster home, where she received some of the intensive services Stephanie had sought. Then, to Stephanie's shock, DCF took custody of her older son, Lance, for whom Stephanie had not requested services. It took nine months to get Lance back home. Sami still lives with another family. Stephanie is allowed visits, but her custodial rights are limited.

“I wear shame. I do I wear it all over me,” said Stephanie. “You just know, people are looking at you thinking, what did she do? Because it just isn't normal. DCF just doesn't come in and take your kids. It doesn't happen like that.”

Listen to the full story here:

About the reporter

Juliana Schatz Preston

Juliana Schatz Preston

Juliana Schatz Preston was a 2017-18 Type Investigations Ida B. Wells Fellow and is an independent filmmaker based in New York.


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