Last year, the federal government found that at least 12,700 children were placed in foster care or juvenile jails only because they needed mental health treatment. The study called it a significant problem in every state.
A bill before Congress, known as the Family Opportunity Act, would let families of disabled children purchase coverage under the Medicaid program.
Some states have also utilized federal programs that help states pay for residential treatment. Virginia officials said they will look more closely at those alternatives.
Parents who have placed young people in foster care said it was the only alternative after years of arrests, psychiatric ward visits and violent behavior by their children.
"We tried so much, but there seemed like there was nothing out there for him," said Fairfax County resident Marnie Merriam, mother of a 16-year-old with bipolar disorder. She said her son, Anthony, had started to lash out at her younger children, in one instance needing the police to calm him. "Giving him to the system was really the last thing I ever wanted to do.
"But it came to this, and it robs you of the natural feelings of being a parent," she said. "Almost like you're giving up. . . . But I knew it was for the best."
Advocates for the mentally ill said the chief problem is a "fragmented system" that doesn't get services to children fast enough because of long waiting lists and expensive treatments.
"We are not very good at intervening early," said Margaret Crowe, policy director of Voices for Virginia's Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Richmond. "Children often have signs of problems, but all too often these issues are just not addressed."