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Georgia kids sent out of state for behavioral health needs

<i>WANF via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Danielle has been engaging in virtual visits with her son
Lawrence, Nakia
WANF via CNN Newsource
Danielle has been engaging in virtual visits with her son

By Ciara Cummings

Click here for updates on this story

    ATLANTA, Georgia (WANF) — For the past year, Danielle (last name withheld) has been engaging in virtual visits with her son, Alex. Although Alex is 18, the state of Georgia considers him a dependent child with high needs.

Alex has severe autism, but being away from family complicates his behavior even more, according to mom.

Back in 2011, when Danielle served prison time for felony forgery, she gave guardianship of her special-needs son to his maternal grandmother. But when she died in 2022, the Georgia Department of Human Services’ Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) ultimately decided Alex needed to be placed in a residential facility for behavioral health.

The problem? The closest available one was hundreds of miles away, near Houston, Texas, according to DFCS.

“There [are] visits [where] he’s biting his nails, and I’m {asking] what’s wrong and he tries to get close to the screen,” Danielle said. “I want to take my baby and hug him.”

Child welfare advocates have sounded the alarm on stories similar to Alex’s. A joint committee in the state legislature began focusing on the issue of “high needs” cases last year. They allege the state’s own residential facilities can make more profit when they accept more out-of-state patients, meaning kids coming to Georgia for help.

That results in fewer residential facility options for children who already are state residents. As a result, that means local children may have to leave Georgia for help.

Child welfare workers also are citing a lack of statewide specialized training and staff shortages.

Experts also blame the state’s own insurance company, Amerigroup, for failing to approve costly claims. In a January 2023 joint committee meeting at the state capitol, Amerigroup denied the allegations, and said it is committed to serving Georgians.

However, Brian Patterson, who leads the health, law, and policy team for the Georgia Department of Human Services, told lawmakers, “I have personally reviewed and witnessed these extremely medically fragile children being routinely and systematically denied medically necessary treatment regardless of the child’s or youth’s medical circumstances.”

“They will all receive the exact same formulaic denial notice,” he said.

The dilemma feels devastating for families like Danielle’s, who at least wants to Alex back home. “They are supposed to provide services and help to prevent the placement,” she said. “They failed to do that.”

Citing privacy laws, DFCS declined further comment on Alex’s case.

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