State Politics

Should parents be told when their kids seek mental health counseling?

Students rally at Florida’s Capitol to demand action on gun control, mental health

A week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland killed 17 people, survivors and hundreds of others descended on Florida's Capitol on Feb. 21, 2018, to demand action on gun control and mental health issues.
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A week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland killed 17 people, survivors and hundreds of others descended on Florida's Capitol on Feb. 21, 2018, to demand action on gun control and mental health issues.

After the Parkland shooting last year, debates erupted in the Florida Legislature and across the state about guns — but one thing on which everyone agreed was the fact that Florida’s students needed greater access to mental health services.

But two late-moving bills in the Florida Legislature have brought to the fore new nuances about how open that access should be.

The legislation would create a new section of Florida law that would create a parental “bill of rights,” which would establish parents’ authority to direct “the education and care” of their child as well as their “moral and religious training.” It would also broadly give parents a say in any healthcare decisions their children make through their schools or even private providers: including if minors seek help from a counselor.

That bill could change cases like that of an Indian River County student who recently tried to take their own life, said Bridget Ziegler, a school board member in Sarasota County who said she helped write the bill and pitch it to her state senator, Joe Gruters. Ziegler said before the suicide attempt, the student confided in a school counselor about having suicidal thoughts, but a parent was not notified.

“As a parent myself, I can’t imagine having my child struggling with something … and then me not being aware of that so I can help support my child,” she said. “It can’t be government’s role to make those decisions on when a parent should be notified or be aware of a situation related to their child. It’s dangerous precedent.”

Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology and neuropsychology for John Hopkins All Children's Hospital, speaks on common mental disorders.

But advocates argue that this bill would have consequences for LGBTQ minors, many of whom may seek mental health services before they come out to their families.

“We would certainly always hope that LGBTQ youths always feel comfortable talking to their parents, but we know … it’s not always possible to engage parents when there are very legitimate fears,” said Jon Harris Maurer of Equality Florida, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group. “We’re very conscientious of students’ constitutional rights to privacy.”

The bills, HB 1171 and SB 1726, are unlikely to pass this year because of time: A glut of bills still await consideration by the full House and Senate, and the proposals still have three committee stops though those committees have largely stopped meeting. Proponents are already looking to next year’s session to raise the bills again.

A real-time example

Although similar ideas have been proposed in past sessions, the bill in its current form was inspired by a specific debate in Sarasota County surrounding transgender students’ rights, Ziegler said.

The school board voted for a provision that stated which gender pronouns and bathroom a student could use would be determined by “the student and the student alone.”

“We need to make sure we’re including families and parents in all discussions about their child,” Ziegler said. “You can have a middle schooler think their parents won’t be supportive … all the while the family is left in the dark and their ability to support the child is hijacked.”

Ziegler acknowledged that not all parents will be accepting of LGBTQ children. But allowing the district — and therefore the government — to know information about a student that a parent might not know amounts to a major government overreach, she said.

“It’s not an LGBT issue,” she said. “I know people want to make it that.”

Shawn Frost, a prominent school choice backer who heads the Florida Coalition of School Board Members and had supported the bill, said the two remaining weeks in session meant the bill probably had run out of time to go through the three stops in both the House and Senate still pending. The bill was heard, and approved, by one Senate and two House committees this year.

“It’s low probability of passage of this year, but it’s a top priority … we fully expect this good policy to move through next year,” he said.

The bill is broad and sweeping, Frost said, by design.

“Especially in a post-Parkland era where we have school districts becoming more involved in the home lives of students, there needs to be a thoughtful conversation about where boundaries lie,” he said. “Being a parent is broad.”

A chilling effect?

That breadth is what concerns some advocates, who note children do not always have supportive families or ones that would be open to discussing issues of sexuality and mental health. In a heated hearing for the bill in the House Health & Human Services Committee Tuesday, Maurer and other advocates argued that the state constitution provides for a right to privacy that should cover children’s healthcare decisions.

Democratic Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, recounting his initial negative reaction when he learned his son was gay, openly admitted he “might have been an abusive parent.”

“When he told me, he was 17. He told his mother first … He couldn’t come to me,” Cortes said, citing the homophobia in the “machismo” culture in which he was raised. “That’s the situation that’s going to come to some of these kids.”

Cortes said that with some time, he had learned to accept his son. “You have to love your son,” he said. “To this day, my son still talks to me, we’re great. He’s gay, and I deal with it.”

But other lawmakers, including Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Johns, countered that good parents’ right to have a say in their child’s life shouldn’t be hindered by examples of bad ones. “I understand there’s tension, but excluding parents because some parents may have difficulties doesn’t mean that the parent doesn’t still deserve to be in there,” she said.

Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, the sponsor for the bill, argued during the hearing that “there’s nothing in the bill that obligates the school to tell the parent if a child has come out as gay … If a child is seeking mental health services for any reason beyond a crisis, the school would, in fact, and should engage the parent.”

In truly abusive situations, she added, the Department of Children and Families should get involved. But a child’s general fear about coming out, she said, “could be based on many things and not necessarily the actual reality of how a parent will respond to that.”

In cases that do not rise to the level of abuse, the family should handle it together, she said, after the committee met.

“Mere family disagreements, I don’t feel there’s room for DCF in that space. I think families should be permitted to disagree and move through any challenge together, as a family, without interference from government.”

The bill passed that committee 12-4.

Though the bill is not likely to pass and become law this year, other pieces of legislation are being advanced on similar grounds, including a second Grall bill that would require parental consent for minors to obtain abortions.

Pro-choice advocates have similarly argued that that bill not only complicates minors’ ability to access abortions but also runs afoul of judicial precedent that overturned a similar consent law decades ago.

That bill has cleared the House, though it still has committee stops in the Senate before it reaches the floor.

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