Geneva Fielding, a single mother since age 16, has struggled to raise her three energetic boys in the housing projects of Roxbury. Nothing has come easily, least of all money.
Even so, she resisted some years back when neighbors told her about a federal program called SSI that could pay her thousands of dollars a year. The benefit was a lot like welfare, better in many ways, but it came with a catch: To qualify, a child had to be disabled. And if the disability was mental or behavioral — something like ADHD — the child pretty much had to be taking psychotropic drugs.
Fielding never liked the sound of that. She had long believed too many children take such medications, and she avoided them, even as clinicians were putting names to her boys’ troubles: oppositional defiant disorder, depression, ADHD. But then, as bills mounted, friends nudged her about SSI: “Go try.’’
Eventually she did, putting in applications for her two older sons. Neither was on medications; both were rejected. Then last year, school officials persuaded her to let her 10-year-old try a drug for his impulsiveness. Within weeks, his SSI application was approved.
“To get the check,’’ Fielding, 34, has concluded with regret, “you’ve got to medicate the child.’’
There is nothing illegal about what Fielding did — and a lot that is perhaps understandable for a mother in her plight. But her worries and her experience capture, in one case, how this little-scrutinized $10 billion federal disability program has gone seriously astray, becoming an alternative welfare system with troubling built-in incentives that risk harm to children.
A Globe investigation has found that this Supplemental Security Income program — created by Congress primarily to aid indigent children with severe physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and blindness — now largely serves children with relatively common mental, learning, and behavioral disorders such as ADHD. It has also created, for many needy parents, a financial motive to seek prescriptions for powerful drugs for their children.
And once a family gets on SSI, it can be very hard to let go. The attraction of up to $700 a month in payments, and the near-automatic Medicaid coverage that comes with SSI approval, leads some families to count on a child’s remaining classified as disabled, even as his or her condition may be improving. It also leads many teenage beneficiaries to avoid steps — like taking a job — that might jeopardize the disability check.
The latest federal statistics, obtained by the Globe through a public records request, show a stunning rise over the past two decades in the number of children who qualify for SSI because of a variety of mental disabilities.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
The intro to a longer story in The Boston Globe:
Posted by BA Haller at 2:22 PM