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Gov. Blagojevich's mental health plan sparks lawsuit against school in Indiana

By Rhonda Robinson          Send a link to a friend

[JUNE 17, 2005]  Most kids come home from school with grades. Chelsea Rhoades, a high school student in Indiana, came home with a diagnosis. While parents in Illinois are facing state "intervention" into their children's emotional and spiritual development with the forthcoming Illinois Children's Mental Health Partnership's strategic plan, now on its way to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Chelsea's parents, Michael and Teresa Rhoades, have already stepped into our nightmare.

One evening early last December, the Rhoades' 15-year-old daughter asked if they would explain to her the meaning of obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder. Miss Rhoades then proceeded to inform her stunned parents that this was the diagnosis she had been given at school after completing a survey known as TeenScreen in her homeroom class.

TeenScreen is a controversial mental health and suicide screening program, recommended by President Bush's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. It was specifically promoted by name in an Illinois House resolution passed in 2004.

TeenScreen made its debut last fall in Illinois at Brimfield High School in the Peoria area. Although TeenScreen will not divulge the locations of the screening sites, it boasts of activity in 43 sites around the country, and reports indicate that several more Illinois schools will be implementing the program next year.

Other states abandoning screening

While Illinois legislators were thoughtlessly handing over our parental authority to the Illinois Children's Mental Health Partnership, 10 other states -- including Florida, New York and Pennsylvania -- introduced legislation that prohibits mental health screening within the school system. Some states have gone so far as to forbid any school official from even mentioning a child should be on behavioral medication.

John Whitehead, a high-profile constitutional lawyer and president of the Rutherford Institute, said last week in a personal interview that he had been monitoring the mental health initiative in Illinois, which led him to take on the Rhoades case in Indiana.

Clear constitutional violations

Whitehead believes that there are clear constitutional and privacy violations involved. While he said there is a lot of good case law to fight mental health screening, he considers the opposition to be formidable foes, due to the financial backing of pharmaceutical companies and the Bush administration's support through the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.

Whitehead went on to explain the complexity of the situation: "Many of the TeenScreen people are arguing now that they can step around these federal laws, [e.g., the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, because it is part of the curriculum, so they really don't need parental consent. That's one thing that needs to be fought."

This excuse of being in the curriculum could be the very shelter that the Illinois Children's Mental Health Act of 2003 provided by mandating social and emotional development added to the Illinois Learning Standards.

What is 'parental consent'?

As the Children's Mental Health Plan calling for screening of all Illinois children and pregnant mothers is due on the governorís desk June 30, the issue of parental consent must be defined to the public and spelled out clearly within state law.

According to 2004 TeenScreen statistics, 5,862 children across the country have been screened without written parental consent.

Few parents understand that there is a difference between passive consent and real consent.

However, the schools and the Illinois Children's Mental Health Partnership are well aware of it and have fought to keep it out of the language of Illinois law and the Children's Mental Health Plan. It is a common ploy and an effective tactic, as is evidenced in an e-mail from Terry Smith, at Flagler Palm Coast High School in Florida, to Jim McDonough, director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, who also happens to be listed on the TeenScreen advisory board.

Smith relates to McDonough that after a meeting with the county school district and a conference call to Columbia TeenScreen, the school is interested in screening as many children as possible, beginning in the ninth grade. Therefore, they have chosen the passive consent route.

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Smith writes, "The passive acceptance style was mostly discussed to increase the numbers ... [from] 50 percent for consent to near 95 percent for passive."

Of 650 consent letters mailed, only 17 returned parent denials.

The Children's Mental Health Plan clearly states that all of the recommendations put forth are in compliance with all state laws. This is true. Passive consent is legal -- just ineffective in informing and alerting parents -- and they prefer to keep it that way.

No one is denying that mental illness should not be ignored or that children who need help should have it.

However, while concentrated efforts are being thrust into the general population in fishing for unseen problems, the truly needy, who are currently not getting the help they need, will surely languish while resources are squandered on ineffective screening tools such as TeenScreen.

TeenScreen does not reduce suicides

Although TeenScreen is being promoted by some as "proven" effective, as evidenced in our House resolution, it clearly is not, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force report, which states there is "no evidence that screening for suicide risk reduces suicide attempts or mortality."

Even TeenScreen's co-director, Rob Caruano, does not make that claim. Caruano said in the Indiana South Bend Tribune, "Teen suicides, while tragic, are so rare that the study would have to be impossibly huge to show a meaningful difference in mortality between screened and unscreened students. ... You'd have to be screening almost the whole country to reach statistical significance."

The partnership claims the proposed screening is not mandatory. Yet, as a stated goal, the plan calls for screening as a part of regular examinations required for school entry, and developmental and emotional health are already embedded in our school curriculum.

Like a thief in the night, this "strategic plan" will not only devastate parental rights in Illinois with unprecedented state intrusion, but it will rob the truly mentally ill of scarce state resources -- while threatening healthy children with dangerous medications and being labeled with a diagnosis that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.

[Rhonda Robinson]

Rhonda Robinson pens her perspective as a weekly columnist for the Greater Illinois News Group on the current social, political and parenting issues shaping the family, and she is a news correspondent for the Illinois Leader.

With disarming humor and thoughtful insight, she is a popular women's conference speaker on the art of mothering in a post-Christian culture.

Her work regularly appears in The Link, Illinois Family Institute and Changing Worldviews.

Illinois Family Institute has a working relationship with Focus on the Family, Alliance Defense Fund and the Family Research Council, as well as similar state-based organizations across the United States.

You can contact Robinson at (217) 663-0152 or Rhonda@across-the-fence.com.

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