Court holds that parents do not have to be found unfit for state to be granted custody of out of control mentally ill child.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Oct. 13, 2007
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Parents whose mentally ill child is out of control have a right to ask the state to take charge, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The unanimous decision by the high court on Thursday clarifies the state’s dependency laws, saying that a parent doesn’t need to be found unfit in order to make the child a ward of the state.
The ruling doesn’t mean the state will automatically have to take custody in such cases. Someone still needs to file a dependency petition, and then a judge has to rule that the child doesn’t have a parent who’s able to care for him or her.
Parents have a legal responsibility to care for their children, including obtaining mental-health care if it’s needed. The job of the state’s Children’s Administration is to step in when parents are unfit or there is child abuse or neglect.
The state Department of Social and Health Services had argued that to allow otherwise fit parents to file dependency petitions in order to get state-subsidized mental health services for their children would be a misuse of the dependency process.
But state statutes “allows consideration of both a child’s special needs and any limitations or other circumstances which affect a parent’s ability to respond to those needs,” the court, led by Justice Barbara Madsen, wrote. “It is unnecessary to find parental misconduct in order to find a child dependent.”
The case was brought forth by the family of a teen who threatened to kill his parents and his younger siblings, and molested a younger brother and several other children. The family sent the boy to a locked mental-health treatment center in Idaho.
But after their insurance backed out, and facing bankruptcy, the parents turned to the state Children’s Administration for help. The agency said it wasn’t responsible and the Snohomish County Juvenile Court agreed. The high court overturned that lower court decision.
The boy’s father said he currently lives at a Seattle group home that serves homeless youth, where he doesn’t get therapy, but is supervised.
The decision means the Children’s Administration may be required to care for untold numbers of mentally ill children whose parents are unable to care for them.
“I think it provides a certain amount of hope for kids and families,” said Gregory Link, the boy’s lawyer.
The state attorney general’s office, which represented the agency, said it’s uncertain how the decision might affect its daily work, though officials said they didn’t expect a flood of cases. Spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie said the state would not ask the court to reconsider its decision, and won’t appeal.
“We believe the Supreme Court gave good guidance on the issue,” she said Friday. “We needed clarification.”