Target 2: push to change Wisconsin's 'outdated' teen mental health law

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Frustration and confusion are prompting a push to change a law some argue makes it harder for teenagers to get help for mental illness.

"The law is pretty solid in a lot of places, but this is a discrepancy. It's surprising to me that it was ever even written as it is," says parent and NAMI Brown County board member John Fredenburgh.

Police and parents came to Target 2 Investigates, convinced more kids should be getting help. Instead, they say an outdated law is preventing it.

The reason? The child's age.

We're only talking about intense treatment when a child is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but mental health providers say more and more kids do need that level of help.

In this state, though, it's not solely a parent's decision.


Target 2 discovered Wisconsin is one of the few places where teens, as young as 14, have as much or maybe even more power, than their parents.

"It's countless police calls from families and parents that are beside themselves, don't know what to do," says Barb Gerarden. "When their kids are in crisis when they're commonly 15, 16, and they feel so helpless."

Those parents turn to Gerarden, one of Green Bay's mental health police officers, hoping she has a solution.

"The majority of parents are crying for help," she says.

But increasingly, Gerarden is finding she and those parents can do little to intervene until that child threatens to kill themselves or someone else.

"It doesn't make sense to me as a law enforcement officer or as a parent, because if my child needed help, I should be able to get them help. It's my responsibility until they're 18," Gerarden points out.

And it is a parent's responsibility medically.

State law specifically says a parent or guardian could be charged with child neglect if they don't provide medical or dental care.

Mental health is not mentioned.

"The brain is attached to the head. Mental health should be treated the same," says Gerarden.

But Target 2 found it's not.

"Once you hit the age of 14, they consider that, related to mental health, to be at the age of consent," says Sharla Baenen, Bellin Psychiatric Center president.


In Wisconsin, at 14, a child earns the legal right to decide whether he or she should be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. Click here to view the law.

The law requires both a parent or guardian and a minor, age 14 or older, to consent to the inpatient care.

If only one of them agrees, the other can fight it with a petition through the courts.

Bellin Psychiatric Center president Sharla Baenen says that part of the process is rare.

"The law is really there to assure that we are making sure that we're providing a least restrictive environment for those individuals, because everyone has rights. We have to make sure we're in line with that," explains Baenen.

But Officer Gerarden says she encounters the families who never get to that point, desperate for intervention, but unsure how to get it.

"Basically the parents are waiting for something bad to happen, for the dangerousness so we can intervene," she says.

Right now the only way a teen, unwilling to consent to the care, can be treated, is if police take them into custody and place them involuntarily in a psychiatric hospital for 72 hours.

Police can only do that, though, if the child is suicidal or homicidal at that moment.

In 2017, Green Bay Police say 91 teens, ages 14 to 17, were admitted that way.

This year, 32 have been.


Officer Gerarden says nearly all of them reached that point after protesting help from their parents first.

"I find it to be rather frustrating, because most 14-year olds, as minors, don't have enough knowledge to even be able to provide the informed consent needed," says Fredenburgh.

He's an advocate and parent who has a 14-year old and sees the same science researchers do.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says the part of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act is still developing well into adulthood, adding that adolescents are guided more by emotion and less by thought and logic.

"We recognize, scientifically, that there's evidence that supports early intervention, so why should you wait for your son or daughter to deteriorate before you can intervene?" says Gerarden. "It's just wrong."

So what about other states?


Target 2 found only 12 other states give a minor, age 14 or younger, legal say in getting inpatient treatment.

Nearly all of the rest of the country says the teen should be older or gives parents control of the final decision.

Four states have no specific law on the books.

Target 2 found Wisconsin's original law, written in 1977, hasn't changed at all, but the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness is lobbying to change it now.

"We're currently drafting a letter that we plan on sending over to the governor, and we'll send it to the state assembly and state senate as well," says Fredenburgh. "It's a cut and dry thing that just needs to be fixed, and it's not difficult to do."

For parents struggling, Bellin Psychiatric Center says sometimes they can talk with teens and convince them to try treatment.

Baenen stresses, though, it is most effective when the teens want the help.

Target 2 Investigates will follow up with lawmakers and let you know what happens after they receive those letters.


Bellin Health Psychiatric Center

Suicide prevention hotlines and websites

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