The Bind Forced on Parents of the Mentally Ill

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Pete Earley's son Mike got behind the wheel of a car and drove off with his eyes closed; apparently, something in his mind told him this was the way to see whether he was awake or asleep. When his worried father took Mike to the hospital to check on his odd behavior, the doctors said they were very sorry, Mr. Earley, but we can't help your son.

Then Mike wrapped tinfoil around his head because he thought the CIA was tapping into his brain; when his parents sought treatment for him, the mental health system turned them away.

Finally, Mike broke into a neighbor's house in Fairfax to take a bubble bath. It took six officers and a police dog to drag him out of the house. Still, the authorities said, there is no way to commit someone to a mental hospital in Virginia unless the person is an imminent danger to himself or others.

So Pete Earley did what a father does: "I went in and I lied. I said my son was threatening to kill me."

Thank you, sir, come right this way.

Earley wanted treatment for Mike to save his son, not to guard against any parental liability. What parent checks the lawbooks before doing the right thing for his child? But was Earley legally liable for his then-22-year-old son's actions?

Are the parents of Michael Kennedy -- the Centreville teenager who shot and killed two Fairfax police officers last month -- refusing to talk to police because they fear being held culpable for their 18-year-old's behavior?

The Kennedys may never have said the magic words the system demands before it will forcibly treat a mentally disturbed person. But the evidence is that the Kennedy parents knew their boy was mentally ill and tried to get him treatment. Yet the Kennedys kept an arsenal of weapons in the townhouse where they lived with their son. Does that make them responsible for what he did?

If you give your kid a baseball bat and a bucket of balls and send him into the back yard to practice hitting, and he smashes the neighbor's window, you as a parent are liable for the damage.

Host a party at your house where your teenager and other teens drink beer and you could face hefty fines.

And "if your son is chronically manic and has a propensity to drive recklessly, then you have a duty to take the keys, regardless of your son's age," says Gerard Rugel, a lawyer in Herndon who represents people with mentally ill family members.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers agree the Kennedy parents almost certainly committed no crime. But in a civil court -- if, for instance, the family of a fallen officer were to sue the Kennedys -- the key question would be whether the parents could have foreseen their child's actions.

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