Supreme Court Ruling

Friday, October 12, 2007

 

‘State Must Hear Parents’ Plea For Help’

 

By: Maureen O’Hagan

Seattle Times staff reporter

 

At age 13, Henry had his share of problems. He flew into rages and bouts of uncontrolled weeping; he cut himself and threatened suicide; and most frightening of all, he threatened to kill his parents and his younger siblings.

Henry tried therapy and medications, but things only got worse. He did six stints in hospital mental wards and still suffered hallucinations. His parents limited irritations such as noise and light in their Snohomish County home, as therapists suggested. They created a “safe room” that the youngsters could run to when Henry started to rage. Meanwhile, his mother couldn’t sleep at night, so consumed was she with fear.

Finally, they sent him to a locked mental-health treatment center in Idaho. But after their insurance backed out, and after they had racked up tens of thousands in debt, they turned to the state Children’s Administration for help.

The agency, which normally takes charge only in cases where parents abuse or neglect their children — not the case with Henry’s parents — said it wasn’t responsible. The Snohomish County Juvenile Court agreed.

Both were wrong, according to a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday. Parents whose mentally ill child is out of control have a right to ask the state to take the kid off their hands, under the ruling.

The unanimous decision means the Children’s Administration may be required to care for untold numbers of mentally ill children whose parents are at their wits’ end.

“I think it provides a certain amount of hope for kids and families,” said Gregory Link, Henry’s lawyer. (Henry will be referred to throughout this story by his first name because using his last name would reveal the identity of his younger brother, whom he admitted to molesting.)

The state Attorney General’s Office, which represented the agency, said it’s uncertain how the decision might affect its daily work. But Kim Ambrose, a lecturer at the University of Washington Law School who specializes in juvenile law, says the case highlights larger societal problems.

“What’s really going on here is the lack of adequate mental-health services for children and whose responsibility that is,” she said.

A federal study in 2001 estimated 12,700 children in 19 states (including nearly 1,000 in Washington) were placed in foster care or the juvenile-justice system solely to get mental-health services. The Supreme Court opinion itself, in fact, mentions a consensus among experts that to “trade custody for care” is no great solution to the mental-health dilemma.

By the time Henry’s family went to court, they felt it was their only option.

Shifting responsibility?

Parents have a legal responsibility to care for their children, including obtaining mental-health care if it’s needed. The job of the Children’s Administration is to step in when parents are unfit. When able parents like Henry’s ask the agency to take charge of their child, they’re shifting their responsibility to the state, the agency argued.

Throughout the case, no one suggested Henry’s parents did anything wrong. They participated in his treatment and visited regularly. They racked up $200,000 in debt on Henry’s mental-health care, his father said.

In the spring of 2005, they were two months behind on their payments to Henry’s treatment center and were facing the possibility of bankruptcy when they sought help from the Children’s Administration.

“It’s a fairly common scenario,” Ambrose said.

The family filed what’s known as a dependency petition in Snohomish County Juvenile Court asking the state to take responsibility for Henry since they could no longer care for him. They also said that they learned Henry was a sexual predator who molested his younger brother and several other children. It wasn’t safe to let him back in the house.

Henry felt the same way, the opinion said. Henry’s therapists agreed that he couldn’t go back home and that he needed years of inpatient treatment, according to the opinion.

Judge Stephen J. Dwyer said all that was irrelevant under the law, which simply asks whether the child has parents who are able to care for him adequately. In the judge’s eyes, Henry’s parents were more than able. Selling their house would give them enough to pay for six more months of care, he said.

And after that, Henry’s father wondered?

“The state was telling us we were supposed to put this basically sexual predator back into our house to live alongside a victim,” he said. And the family would be destitute.

Henry’s lawyer appealed the decision. Meanwhile, his father told Henry’s treatment center that they ran out of money. About a year ago, the center arranged for him to live at a Seattle group home that serves homeless youth. He doesn’t get therapy there, but at least it’s supervised, his father said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s all that unusual among homeless youth,” Link, Henry’s lawyer, said. Many have untreated mental-health problems. Some come from families like Henry’s.

Grueling process

More than two years after the family’s petition was rejected by the juvenile court, the state Supreme Court said they have a right to ask the Children’s Administration for help.

That doesn’t mean the state will automatically have to take charge in cases like Henry’s. First, someone needs to file a dependency petition, then a judge has to rule that the child doesn’t have a parent who’s able to care for him. The process can be emotionally grueling.

Thus, Henry is in limbo. To pursue the case further, they would have to refile the dependency petition and argue that Henry can’t be cared for by family. Even if a judge decides in the family’s favor, Henry might not get the treatment the family wants.

For one thing, there are no locked inpatient treatment centers in Washington for these types of cases, according to Steve Hassett, lead counsel for the Children’s Administration.

And now, Henry is four months away from becoming an adult. At that point, the whole question will be moot.

 

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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