By law, public schools are required to provide a fair and appropriate education to all students – including those with mental health challenges. But what happens in reality is that families are forced to navigate an incredibly complex system, in a process that can take years to obtain the right services for their child. A new report published by ProPublica and news outlet The City looks at glaring inequities in this system. Tiffany Caldwell is a parent who has lived through it, and Abigail Kramer is a journalist who spent a year covering the topic. They joined "WNYC Morning Edition" host Michael Hill to talk about how public schools do – and don’t – serve children with mental health issues. Below is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

It's Morning Edition on WNYC. I'm Michael Hill. Good morning, Abigail and Tiffany.

Abigail, your story presents a pretty bleak portrait of what the school system is like for families whose children have mental health or behavioral challenges. Would you give us a brief overview of how the system works?

In New York City, what we have is a system where the services that families can get through the public education system often depend on the private resources that a family can bring to the table. So under long-standing federal law, New York City, like every other school district, is legally required to provide an appropriate education to kids with disabilities, including those with mental health and behavioral challenges. If a school district, including New York City, can't do that, then they are legally obligated to pay for a child to attend an appropriate private school.

So how is it that more-resourced families can make the system work for them?

Often families who can afford it are spending a lot of money up front to get private evaluations, for example, that they should be receiving for free. Through the public education system, they are hiring professional advocates to help them fight for services that their kids are actually entitled to and should already be getting in the public education system. In many cases, they are sending their kids to private schools that serve students with disabilities appropriately, and then hiring attorneys to sue the city to pay them back for at least part of the tuition that they're incurring.

This seems like a very convoluted approach. Abigail, how did we get here?

New York City's special education system has been in turmoil for years, right? We've got decades of reports and findings saying that New York City students are far too often placed in separate special education schools rather than being given the services that they need to stay in community schools where they will be integrated with peers without disabilities.

We also have a mental health care system that has, for a very long time, been inadequate to serve kids’ needs. Kids cannot get the mental health care that they need in their communities. Over the past decade, New York state has shut down hundreds of beds and programs for kids with very severe and very acute mental health needs – all based on a promise that there was going to be a massive expansion of community-based services for kids. That expansion hasn't happened.

Tiffany, you've lived this situation trying to get support for your daughter. Before we get into the specifics, would you talk about what that was like?

Well, I found it extremely hard. My daughter, for one, is on the autism spectrum disorder. So in the community we live in, the only option that we had, unfortunately, was the psychiatric ER, where I took her when she was in a mental health crisis. Basically they threw their hands up and I pleaded with them to just keep her overnight. There was physical aggression that was involved that never was an issue prior to the pandemic.

How old is Taylor?

She's 15 years old now.

Tiffany, during the pandemic, you realized that your daughter needed a very specific kind of residential education, but due to bureaucratic and financial hurdles, it took two years to get your daughter in the right school. What was that like for you, as a parent?

Oh Lord. Just hurtful. I can't even put it in words. To sit and to feel helpless and like you're trying to help your child and there's literally nothing that you can do. I equated it to being out in the ocean with no life jacket and you're literally screaming, “help, save us,” and you're pretty much left to drown.

Abigail, the cost of these so-called “Carter cases” [students whose educations are reimbursed under the federal law] has grown exponentially in the past decade, with payouts reaching $918 million last year. What's driving that?

Well, a huge piece of it is the increase in the number of parents who are unilaterally sending their kids to private schools and then seeking tuition reimbursements. Families are not getting the services they need from the public special education system, and so families who can afford to do so feel the need to get their kids help.

Tiffany, what do you tell other parents who are starting out on this?

You have to educate yourself as much as possible. It is a very complex system to navigate, so try to surround yourself with organizations that offer advocacy and support because it's a very confusing system. And I think that's the best advice that I could give.

Abigail, in your reporting, have you uncovered ways the system could realistically be improved?

In my reporting I learned about a lot of relatively small-scale initiatives to improve the system. I think that the city does deserve credit for creating some good education programs, particularly for students with autism in recent years, for making efforts to improve public special education for certain students with disabilities. I also learned about several small-scale initiatives and pilot programs for kids with significant mental health and behavioral problems. I think those programs are great. They're gonna touch a few dozen kindergartners.

I've been speaking with Abigail Kramer and Tiffany Caldwell. Thank you both for your time.