Family Law

WA, Not Parents to Fund Child Mental Care?

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In a ruling that could help struggling families, the Washington Supreme Court says the state must help some children who need mental health services even if their parents aren’t unfit.

Ordinarily, parents must care for their children unless they abuse or neglect them. But after “Henry’s” parents paid some $200,000 for his inpatient mental health care, they unsuccessfully sought state funding, according to the Seattle Times.

While the state isn’t required to to pay in every case, the supreme court said Thursday it might have had to do so here, if the proper “dependency” determination had been made, based on multiple factors. “Here, neither the Schermers’ financial circumstances nor Henry’s mental illness, alone, establish a finding of dependency,” the court wrote in its opinion. “However, when looking at the constellation of facts presented in this case as a whole, in the light most favorable to the petitioners, a rational person could conclude that Henry’s parents are incapable of meeting his special needs and that their inability to do so poses a substantial danger to his physical and mental health.”

A troubled, angry, violent child who allegedly molested a younger sibling and threatened to kill family members, Henry couldn’t safely live at home. Yet “the state was telling us we were supposed to put this basically sexual predator back into our house to live alongside a victim,” his father tells the Times.

Henry is now in a state-run group home, supervised but untreated. The legal victory likely won’t help him, since he’ll be an adult in four months. For others, though, the case has outlined a pathway to possible help, the Times explains. “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.”

Even then, the solution may not be optimal. There are, for example, no locked treatment centers in Washington for such cases. (Henry’s parents paid for treatment in neighboring Idaho.)

The case highlights a larger unresolved issue, says Kim Ambrose, who teaches at the University of Washington Law School. “What’s really going on here is the lack of adequate mental-health services for children and whose responsibility that is.”

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