Most of the children are teen boys, often with multiple problems. Many show behavior that threatens the safety of themselves and others.
These children need treatment, but neither the child welfare system, which cares for abused and neglected kids who have to be removed from their parents, nor the justice system, which handles delinquents, was designed to treat them.
Still, the General Accounting Office found that more than 12,700 children were placed into one of these two systems during fiscal year 2001. That's based on a survey of officials in 19 states' child welfare systems and 30 county juvenile justice systems. The total number nationally is surely much higher, the GAO said, partly because some of the largest states did not report their numbers.
"One shudders to think that in America the parents of a child who has a mental illness would be forced to relinquish custody in order to get their child needed mental health services. Unfortunately, this heartbreaking sacrifice is all too common," said Michael Faenza, president of the National Mental Health Association, a lobby group.
State officials told the GAO that the children needing care came from families of all financial levels and that their illnesses strained families' ability to function. Some parents had trouble caring for other children in the family or finding time needed for work, the report said.
Costs vary, the report said, but a year in a residential treatment facility can cost more than $250,000.
In many cases, health insurance will not pay for mental health treatment. Other barriers for parents: treatment spots and child psychiatric services are not available.
The report was requested by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Reps. Pete Stark, D-Calif., and Patrick Kennedy, D-Mass., who praised its findings.
"This report just confirms what too many families know firsthand: that our neglect of children's mental health care is destroying families," Kennedy said in a statement. "Our government should be working to keep families together, not forcing them apart."