Mental Illness and the Child Custody Case

November 25th, 2009

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans age 18 and older – about one in four adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. This figure translates to 57.7 million people. Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time. Nearly half (45 percent) of those with mental disorder meet criteria for two or more disorders, with severity strongly related to co-morbidity. Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. A diagnosed mental illness in a custody case may not only affect the eventual outcome of the case, but may also determine how counsel prepares his or her particular case strategy.

There are degrees of severity and levels of functioning with all mental disorders, and in the context of a contested custody case an extreme position can be easier for an attorney to handle. The fact finder is evaluating each parent’s ability to meet the child’s needs and the parties’ particular parenting abilities. A psychiatric diagnosis is not in and of itself a measuring tool. The specific acts of each parent must be examined in detail.

One important factor to consider is a request for psychological testing or the appointment of a counselor or psychiatrist to evaluate the parties. If the party with the mental illness has not admitted they have an illness, the results of court-ordered evaluations may force the issue and may also provide additional evidence to support a modification of temporary orders.

Counsel may want to recommend to the court that the child attend therapy. You may suggest the use of the therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist of the person with the mental disorder for recommendations to the court of the parent’s visitation with the child.

Counsel may also want to consider a temporary injunction in addition to the standard temporary injunction for the preservation of property and protection of the parties and the children. Some issues to consider are preventing the use of alcohol within 24 hours of possession of the children; preventing the mentally ill party from operating a motor vehicle while taking medications, and preventing the parties from making disparaging remarks regarding the other party.

It is important that counsel identify and define the particular drugs the mentally ill patient is taking. Counsel should request a HIPPA Release (specifically related to mental health disclosures) allowing access to medical and prescription drug records of the mentally ill party. Research should then be performed as to the effects of each drug on the mentally ill person.

It may be necessary to have an Amicus Attorney appointed to represent the interests of the children. The Amicus Attorney has a powerful role in the contested custody case and can assist in gaining information on the mentally ill party. All parties should cooperate fully with the Amicus Attorney for the best interest of the children. It is important to make yourself available to the Amicus Attorney and to be pro-active in setting up appointments. It is important that counsel instruct you as to what to say and what not to say to the Amicus Attorney. It is also critical that counsel respond to any discovery propounded by an Amicus Attorney timely.

Be sure to educate yourself about the particular mental disorder you are dealing with. Make sure your experts have experience in handling the particular mental disorder in questions. Counsel should use the testimony of experts to offer aid and/or educate the judge and/or jury so they have a clear understanding of the mental illness and its foreseeable consequences to the spouse and/or family members.

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