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At 13, teens in Washington can refuse mental health treatment even if suicidal; parents fighting to change rules

SEATTLE -- Teen suicides continue to be an epidemic in Washington state. On average, more than 100 teens die by suicide every year and for many families seeking treatment some of the rules are hurting more than helping.

“At 15 and a half, my daughter was suicidal and she would not go to counseling; she felt hopeless,” Mary Hart said.

As a mother, Hart felt helpless.

“It was hard to get through to her because she was so depressed,” Hart said.

And the law was not on her side, In Washington state, the age of consent for seeking treatment is 13. That means kids can make decisions about treatment without parental involvement. In Mary’s case, her daughter refused to get professional help for her suicidal thoughts.

“I was very worried. I know I wasn't sleeping,” Hart said.

Desperate, the Shoreline mom took her daughter out of Washington into Oregon where the law allows parents to put kids in treatment without their consent.

“It was a huge leap of faith to drop her off there and not really know them,” Hart said.

Mary's struggles are not unique.

Peggy Dolane says she decided to get involved after hearing from many parents facing the same challenges.

“You can’t get a flu shot, go in a tanning booth or get a tattoo without a parent consent but you can make life or death decisions,” Dolane said.

Dolane is volunteering 40 hours a week on the issue, researching and lobbying the Washington Legislature to rewrite the law.

“I was even told the best minds in the state tried to address this issue and (then) got to work on something else,” Dolane said.

The age of consent comes with good intentions --  it empowers young people to make decisions about their own bodies. Dolane says she is not trying to change that part of the law.

“I kept hearing what happens to abortion rights; they are completely separate issues,” Dolane said.

She is pushing to give parents more rights when it comes to mental health.

“Every state in the nation has more rights for parents than we do,” Dolane said.

For example, states like Oregon, California and Hawaii all have a low age of consent but they still give parents more oversight to make decisions when it comes to mental health issues.

“Right now, parents can take a child to treatment for evaluation but you can’t find out anything,” Dolane said.

The goal is not to promote involuntary treatments but to make the process a more family-centered approach with a professional at the helm.

“A set number of outpatient settings that would be a limit that a kid would have to go to, trusting families to make strong health choices or the best choices for their children,” Dolane said.

Dolane says after years of talking about this, she feels like her voice is finally being heard.

“It was very clear, OK,  we are at a turning point,” Dolane said.

And that turning point is the momentum she is seeing in the Legislature. Dolane says more lawmakers are now interested in the issue and willing to brainstorm ways to find a good balance.

I’m carrying a huge weight of people, people who have died, families who are saying my child is suffering and I can’t help them,” Dolane said.

Dolane says she expects a bill to be drafted by the end of the year for 2019's legislative session.

And if Mary's story is any consolation, she says pushing her daughter to get treatment saved her life.

“She's alive, she's living, she is working her way like any 22-year-old through early adulthood; she's doing great,” Hart said.

Her daughter did not want to go on camera but Hart says her daughter encouraged her to sit down with Q13 News, hoping it could save others in need.