Mental Health and Custody

Like many of the other topics discussed on this blog, mental health can deeply impact a custody case. In some states, mental illness is a condition that can lead to the loss of parental rights, so it is not surprising that parents with mental illness are more likely to lose custody than a parent without a mental health condition.

What does Pennsylvania say?

Luckily, the Commonwealth leaves out the specifics, opting instead to investigate and determine the potential impacts of mental health issues on a case by case basis. This is excellent news because a parent’s chances of obtaining primary custody are not completely ruined due to mental health issues. The Court remains concerned about finding a solution that is in the child’s best interest, and will approach mental health much in the same ways as the other factors.

That’s not to say that mental health has no impact on custody. The more severe the mental health issue, the more likely it will impact a custody decision. In a case where one parent suffers from an intense mental health condition and the other parent does not struggle with mental health, barring any other red flags, a Court is more likely to choose the parent without mental health issues to have primary custody.

While a parent will not automatically lose custody because they have a mental health condition, the Court may use past behaviors to determine the best custody arrangement. For example, if you are dangerously erratic, unstable, or if you have abandoned the children for days or even months at a time, it is fairly safe to say that a Judge will not award you with primary custody- at least not when these behaviors have occurred recently. There are a number of ways a Judge can devise a custody plan, but the goal is to find an arrangement that keeps the child safe.

Circumstances that may negatively impact a custody decision include:

–        Abusive behavior toward the child

–        Incapacitation or impairment, especially if no one else in the household can provide care

–        Incarceration or imprisonment

–        Neglect or abandonment of the child

Obviously, the more serious the condition, the greater the impact it will have on a custody decision, but sometimes the condition does not render a parent unfit, but rather the results or side effects of treatment. In some states, parents fear getting the help they need because they worry a Court will take away custody. As we have discussed, the mere presence of a mental health condition is not enough for a Judge to terminate a parent’s rights. If a parent has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, so long as that parent is able to provide care and stability, the Court will not deny that parent the right to custody. If a parent is getting treatment, but unable to provide care during this time, say for example, because they need to go to a three month rehabilitation program, a Court may temporarily restrict custody, but barring any other influencers, will not likely terminate parental rights permanently. A Judge may require the parent to demonstrate fitness prior to granting custody again, either through evaluations or something like a step-up plan, but a Court will not punish a parent for getting the help they need.

These situations are difficult, especially for children and the other parent. Sometimes, mental health issues can present themselves for the first time during the divorce/custody process, especially if the condition is trigger by stress. Having no history of mental illness, this can leave the other parties confused, frustrated, or hurt. For those already suffering, it can easily cause a downward spiral, especially if that party was once dependent on the other for care. Often times, the suffering party doesn’t even realize their own behavior, adding yet another layer of complexity.

Mental health is complex, and it may be difficult to trust the Court, especially if you are the one suffering. If you do suffer from a mental health issue, custody is not an excuse not to get help, and in fact, it should be the reason why you should. A Court will reward self-awareness and responsibility. You can still have custody while managing a mental health issue, so long as the issue does not interfere with your ability to care for the child. Denying and neglecting to get the help you need can only make things worse.

This article was written by writer and legal intern, K. Gleason.