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After court ruling, where will troubled kids go now?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Karla Nelson had struggled for years with a son she couldn't control. But by January, she was desperate.
In the months before, she said, her 13-year-old son had assaulted her and his teachers; been barred from two local hospitals because of his aggression toward staff; and was so intent on hurting himself that he ate speaker wire.
He had been diagnosed at different points with bipolar disorder and countless other illnesses. All Nelson knew was that she wanted to get him admitted into intensive inpatient psychiatric treatment, but the wait was just too long.
Finally, in February, a King County juvenile-court judge who helped handle the assault charges thought she knew how to get the family help.
Judge Patricia Clark ordered state child-welfare authorities to take the boy into their care in the hope he would get psychiatric treatment.
It's a regular occurrence in juvenile court, where judges for years have ordered the state Department of Social and Health Services to take kids who have no other place to go.
But a Court of Appeals decision Monday put a stop to that practice, ruling that Clark's order was illegal. The normal steps to put a child in foster care hadn't been followed, the court ruled, and judges have no right to bypass that process.
That puts judges like Clark in a quandary — and means kids like Nelson's son could be on their own.
"You have a family who's in fear of their safety," Clark said. "And you have a child who's mentally ill.
"There is no place in our current system to refer that child."
Help sorely lacking
Nelson and her son are not alone. According to Clark, juvenile-court judges in King County order DSHS to take custody of children in situations like this several times a month. Lawyers for DSHS say the children's defense lawyers ask judges to put them in foster care even more often. And judges across the state face similar dilemmas, when youths must be released from detention but can't go home to their parents.
Meanwhile, national studies estimate as many as 70 percent of youths in juvenile detention suffer from mental illness.
A prosecutor who handled the boy's case said if he had gotten the help he needed, he might not have been there in the first place.
But help for children with mental illness is sorely lacking. There are just 91 beds statewide for children who need intensive, long-term inpatient treatment. About half the beds are in a state-operated psychiatric hospital for children; three other residential treatment centers make up the remainder.
Nelson got her son into inpatient treatment several years ago, after he spent about nine months on a waiting list. He spent about a year in the facility before being released. Last summer, his illness grew so severe and his outbursts were escalating — in addition to the speaker wire, he had eaten coins and erasers, and he had tried to strangle and hang himself — that she began trying to get him admitted again. In addition, he weighed more than his mother, so there was no way she could stop him.
In October, he went after Nelson, scratching and pinching her. Although the assault was minor, it was enough to get him arrested. (Nelson asked that his name not be printed to protect his privacy.)
In January, he tripped and kicked his teacher and again was charged with assault. He was also suspended from school. In February, a judge hearing his assault case ordered DSHS to evaluate the family.
Child-welfare authorities responded that they could provide some services for Nelson, but they couldn't take the boy, then 13, into foster care. Foster care is for children who are abused or neglected, lawyers for DSHS argued. The problem was that Nelson was a good parent.
"This was a mother who was fully capable of parenting," said Trisha McArdle, a lawyer with the Attorney General's Office who handled the case for DSHS.
A short time after the DSHS evaluation, a judge issued a protective order saying the boy couldn't have unsupervised access to Nelson.
By the middle of February, he had served his time on the misdemeanor assault charges. That meant he could no longer be held in juvenile detention. But the protective order meant he couldn't go home. And Nelson told the court she simply couldn't handle him.
"He's not safe to come home," she said later in an interview. "He can't go to school. I can't leave my job to care for him 24 hours a day."
That's when Clark ordered DSHS to take charge of the boy.
"What I have seen is a mother who has struggled and struggled and struggled and struggled to get help to her child," Clark said at the hearing. "That part has been exemplary. But I now have a mother who is afraid to be with her own child. I have a mother who has a problem and she needs the attention of these systems and maybe we can figure out a way to get it."
DSHS appealed Clark's order, arguing that DSHS wasn't a party to the case, so it was improper for the judge to make such a ruling. There was no evidence Nelson couldn't handle her child, especially with the temporary help DSHS had offered, the agency said, and there was no evidence a foster parent would do a better job. Besides, if DSHS took the boy into foster care, he'd be taking a bed needed by other children who are clearly being abused or neglected.
McArdle, the DSHS lawyer, said something more was going on. DSHS had seen an increasing number of cases where judges ordered youths — even those accused of serious crimes — into DSHS custody even before they had done their time. She said it appeared that defense lawyers had been manipulating the system to help kids avoid serving their time. DSHS shouldn't be used that way, she said.
"A hole in the system"
The Court of Appeals took the case to address the issues with the boy, but also because the court has been told it's a larger problem.
"There is a big hole, in my view, in the system for juvenile offenders," said Judge James Doerty, a judge in King County juvenile court. "All of the judges in the state probably share the frustration."
During the appeal, DSHS did take custody of Nelson's son, as ordered. Within two months, the boy had been admitted to a long-term psychiatric facility for children. So the Court of Appeals decision won't directly affect his current situation.
But it will have an impact on other children who can't go home after being in detention, Clark said.
"We're all struggling with this issue and we are attempting to explore ways to resolve it," she said. "These are not the Department's [DSHS] children, they're not the court's children. They're our children."
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company