After court ruling, where will troubled kids go now?
By Maureen O'Hagan; Seattle Times staff reporter
June 21, 2006
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
Judge Patricia Clark ordered state child-welfare authorities to
take the boy into their care in the hope he would get psychiatric
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."
The big question now is where those children will go.
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. The Trouble With Boys
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
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
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
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org