The California State Bar Newsletter recently reported a child custody case concerning a parent with a mental illness. In February, a local court decided that "parental rights can be legally terminated when a parent poses a danger to his child, even if the danger results from a treatable mental disability." This ruling could have significant impact for parents in California who are currently involved in custody disputes.
Implications of California Family Code § 7827 on Mental Disability
In this recent case, a married mother and father adopted a child. Before the parents were married, the father had a diagnosed mental illness but managed his condition with medication, which "allowed him to function normally." After the parents adopted the child, the father stopped taking his medication, and his "mental condition deteriorated" so substantially that it "seriously impacted his relationship with his wife and child." In fact, the negative effects of his mental state led his wife to file for a restraining order.
Ultimately, the mother filed a divorce petition, and the court awarded her sole custody of their minor child. In addition, the mother filed a petition to terminate the father's parental rights because of his mental disability.
Under California Family Code section 7827, a parent's rights can be terminated when he is classified as "mentally disabled" according to law. In order to be mentally disabled under the statute, the parent must "suffer a mental incapacity or disorder" that leaves him "unable to care for and control the child adequately." According to the statute, a parent's mental disability can only lead to the termination of his parental rights when he is both mentally disabled and is "likely to remain so in the foreseeable future."
The court ruled against the father. In terminating the father's parental rights, the court determined that the father had a mental disability that left him unable to adequately care for his child. In addition, the court reasoned that his disability was likely to prevent his adequate care for the child in the foreseeable future despite the possibility that he could be treated with medication. In other words, the court found that it was in the best interest of the child to terminate the father's parental rights.
Do Mentally Disabled Parents Face a Courtroom Bias?
California is one of many states in which mental illness can lead to a loss of custody or the termination of parental rights. According to Mental Health America, on average, when parents with mental illness face custody issues in court, between 70 and 80 percent lose their parental rights. Further studies show that in families where one parent suffers from a mental illness, in more than two-thirds of those cases, the minor child is not being raised by the parent with the mental disability.
Last year, a USA Today article reported that certain barriers still exist for parents with mental illness, and that our legal system "is not adequately protecting the rights of parents" who suffer from certain disabilities. The article cited a report by the National Council on Disability, which indicated that parents with disabilities, both physical and mental, are "more likely to lose custody of their children after divorce," and that they face substantial difficulties with biases in the courtroom.
Often, caseworkers worry about child abuse and neglect when minor children are being raised by a parent with a serious mental illness. However, certain disability advocates argue that instead of focusing on the "best interest of the child standard" alone, the courts should take into account that support for mentally disabled parents "may be all that's needed to eliminate risks or lessen problems."