According to national statistics, one in 25 people in this country struggle with mental illness. Many of these victims are also parents and, far too often, their mental illness has an impact on child custody cases. If you are involved in a child custody case and either you or the other parent suffer from mental illness, you should speak with a child custody attorney to find out what your rights are as a parent.
The goal of every family law judge is to approve a child custody plan that is in the best interest of the child. This is the legal standard that every agreement must meet. If a parent suffers with mental illness, then this is one of the factors the judge must consider when making a final custody decision. There are other factors the judge will consider including the ability of both parents to effectively communicate with each other and compromise for the sake of the child, any allegations of abuse, and – if the child is old enough – what their wishes are.
Just because a parent does have a mental illness, this does not automatically mean that they will have limited custody. If they are able to work with the other parent and have no history of abuse, then the mental illness does not become so much of a factor.
It does become a factor, however, if the parent’s mental illness leaves them unable to work with the other parent or if their behaviors put the child at risk of emotional or physical harm. It is critical to note, however, that it is not the mental illness the court is using as the cause to limit parenting time, but the behaviors the mental illness causes that is the reason. If there is any indication that the child will be put at risk, such as a history of past abuse, then the parent will be awarded minimal or no parenting time. If they do receive parenting time, the court will likely order that time to be supervised and the parent is never left alone with the child.
What About Substance Abuse Issues?
In many states, substance abuse is legally treated as a mental illness and not a choice of behavior. However, parents who struggle with substance abuse issues often lose their right to custody and end up with limited parenting time because of the past abuse or neglect their children have suffered because of parents’ addictions.
When this happens, the courts will require the parent to seek treatment for their addiction, including periodically drug testing to ensure the parent is not staying clean and sober. Courts take parental addiction and the dangers to children very seriously and if a parent continues to abuse alcohol or drugs, the court could decide to terminate the rights of the addicted parent if the other parent can prove to the court that the parent is a danger to the child’s health and safety.