But even parents willing to hospitalize their mentally ill child may run into problems. They have surprisingly few options when faced with a dangerous son or daughter. For older kids—it varies from state to state, but generally the minimum age is 15—the child must have made an overt threat that he might harm himself or others. He may have an explosive temper; he may even have access to guns. “But if he hasn’t come right out and said, ‘I’m going to kill someone tomorrow,’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ you’re not going to be able to involuntarily hospitalize him,” says Michael Caldwell, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin who works with dangerous young men at a juvenile treatment center in Madison.
A parent of a child 14 or younger can legally commit him to a mental-health facility without an overt act—but generally, only for three days. And here, there is a practical problem: scarcity of treatment. Liza Long says that after Eric put a knife to her throat, he was taken to the emergency room, where they administered a drug to calm him down. Then the hospital informed her they had no beds for him in the psychiatric hospital. In fact, Eric’s social worker told her the only way to get Eric the mental-health services he needed was to press criminal charges against him. “So those were my options,” she says. “‘We have no idea what’s wrong with your kid. We think he needs a psychiatric bed, but there’s nothing available. Here’s a drug that will knock him out.’” She took him home with a prescription for an antipsychotic drug called Zyprexa.