A Davis mother who drove all night, across 1,600 miles, to lawfully abandon her teenage son at a hospital in rural Nebraska said she was desperate because local police and child-welfare authorities wouldn't help her.
"Just walk into the hospital, and they'll make sure you're taken care of," she told her 14-year-old son before leaving him Friday.
Troubled teenagers have long pushed parents to the breaking point. In this case, the single, working mother of four said she could no longer cope with a child who was abusive and defiant and threatened her and her other children with violence.
For parents of such problem teens, there is a network of resources available through schools and mental health providers. But there are cracks in the system, and the frustrations of dealing with a patchwork of services.
When authorities declined to intervene after her son raised a knife against the family, she said, her only option was to abandon him in a state that would accept him.
Her son was the last of three dozen older children abandoned in Nebraska in recent months before the state's Legislature closed a loophole in its new safe haven law. Now, only newborns can be dropped off without legal liability there.
What options do parents have in such circumstances?
The best starting point for most parents, say experts, is their child's school. School psychologists can identify whether a child is a candidate for mental health services.
Tami Fien, a program specialist at McClatchy High School, said students who appear to have emotional problems are assessed by a team of school personnel. They decide if the student qualifies for special education and counseling.
But the options aren't perfect, she said. For instance, students who have only substance abuse problems may not qualify for special education. "We've got children getting into drugs," she said. "They're not disabled, but they're falling apart."
In that case, the school tries to make do with its limited resources for helping, she said. Wealthier parents can pay for private treatment. Indigent parents can seek assistance through Medi-Cal. Some working parents qualify for employee assistance programs that pay for counseling, or their HMOs have programs.
"It's those people in the middle – they're stuck with what the schools have," she said.
Steve Mackey, a caseworker with the children's division of Sacramento County Mental Health Services, said schools often will refer students with emotional and behavioral problems who qualify for special education programs.
A range of treatment options are available, he said, from therapy sessions to residential treatment programs.
In some cases, students are sent to treatment programs outside of California that deal with especially difficult teens. Teens with threatening behavior aren't uncommon, he said.
Students behaving badly can be kicked out of one program and be placed in a more restrictive setting, he said.
But sometimes spots aren't available, and the teens must return home for a time.
That's apparently what happened to the Davis teen.
His mother, who works as a custodian, makes about $2,000 a month and lives in a modest house, said she was able to get him into a residential treatment program in Sonoma. He seemed to be improving, she said.
But then he started acting out and getting into trouble. It was the same behavior – defiance and aggression, drugs, drinking and smoking – that had caused such trouble at home, she said.
He was repeatedly suspended and recently sent home again for a sexual offense, she said. When the teen came home, she said, she sent her 12-year-old son to stay with a friend because she feared for his safety.
The Sacramento Bee isn't identifying the family because of the juveniles involved.
The Davis woman said she adopted her son when he was 4 years old. She said he had always been difficult, but had become aggressive in his teens toward all the family members, even his taller 17-year-old brother. But the youngest boy was a favorite target, she said.
"He's always been physically and verbally abusive," she said. "He waved butcher knives at us. He pushed us around and hit us. He's stolen everything he could from us."
"The boy scared me," she said. "He scared the living daylights out of me."
After the latest knife-waving incident, the woman said, she called police, who did little to help.
Police in Davis and Sacramento said such situations are handled on a case-by-case basis, with the officer assessing the nature of the threat and the likelihood of violence.
"There's no formula," said Steve Pierce, assistant chief of Davis police. He said he did not know the details of the particular case, but confirmed police had gone to the house a number of times.
The mother also said she called Yolo County Child Welfare Services, who told her they could protect only abused children – not abused parents. They said if her other children were in danger, they might have to come take them.
That might have been true, said Diana Williams of the Yolo County Department of Employment and Social Services. Under the law, the agency can protect children only from abusive or neglectful parents.
"There's nothing that says we have a right to intervene if a child is assaulting a parent," she said. "It's a huge gap in services."
If parents abandon a child in California, the teen would go into the system, but the parents face prosecution, she said.
By last Friday, the Davis woman said she felt she had run out of options. She told her son to pack his bags; they were taking a drive.
Her son is now being brought home by Yolo County officials. He will be placed in foster care, and a court will decide his fate.