Mental Illness and Child Custody: The Impact of Treatment

When a marriage breaks down, child custody is a topic of great concern—especially for people struggling with mental illness. By separating fears from reality, you can better understand how to maintain or regain custody of your child (or children), and what role your mental health treatment program should play as you seek to keep your family together.

“I could see my marriage disappearing,” Anne says. “Every time I couldn’t get out of bed, every time he discovered the alcohol I’d used to self-medicate, every time I went on a spending spree, it chipped away a little piece of our partnership.” Despite understanding that her untreated bipolar disorder was destroying her marriage, Anne was locked tight in the grip of her illness, unable to stop the dysfunction that pushed her further from her husband of 10 years. As the distance grew between them, Anne only fell deeper into distress, bringing divorce closer and closer until one day it arrived.

“I knew it was coming,” she tells me. “It wasn’t a surprise when he walked out. But what did surprise me was when he petitioned for full custody. I knew we had problems, but I never thought he would try to take my little girl away from me. I had tried to shield her from my illness. Even in the deepest depths of depression or highs of mania, I tried to keep her safe from that side of me. In my mind, I was still a good mother.”

But the court did not agree with Anne’s assertions that her little girl remained unaffected by her mental illness. They found that her bipolar disorder impacted her life in a way that made her unfit to have custody of her 7-year-old daughter. “My heart just broke. I was shattered. And at first I was so angry. How could they take her away from me?” Anne asks, her voice shaking. “It took a long time to see that they were right. I was not a safe person for her to be around then. And that’s ultimately what gave me the strength to seek recovery—the desire to get my daughter back.”

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The Fears and Realities of Mental Illness and Child Custody


When a relationship breaks down in the midst of psychiatric distress, loss of custody is often one of the greatest fears parents who struggle with mental illness face. In trying to cope with that fear, you might begin to tell yourself stories to try to shield yourself from the reality of potential loss, convincing yourself that your illness doesn’t affect your child or your ability to parent. Mental illness, after all, often distorts our ability to see ourselves and the world around us clearly.

The truth, however, is that severe mental health disorders often impact children. Whether they know about your illness not, it can compromise your ability to care for yourself and your family, make responsible decisions, and prioritize those who depend on you. As such, whether your child witnesses or comprehends disordered emotional states may be irrelevant; severe psychiatric distress can sometimes eradicate your ability to parent responsibly and reliably because it removes your ability to think and behave in the best interest of those you care about, including yourself and your child. These circumstances are not the result of personal failure, but about the nature of severe psychiatric illness itself.

The justice system recognizes this reality and takes mental health issues into account when ruling on legal and physical custody matters. “In a custody dispute, the issue is not so much whether you are ill, but what effect your illness has on your child,” writes Beverly Bird. “Your spouse would have the burden of proof in a divorce trial to establish not only that you suffer from [mental illness], but that it endangers your child either mentally, physically, or emotionally. Your spouse—or her attorney—will typically try to establish a pattern of times when you inadvertently put your child at risk because of your illness.” Of course, not all people with mental illness present a risk; many people living with psychiatric disorders can, and do, successfully and safely parent. However, violent behaviors, self-injury, or suicide attempts can present a danger to your child, and simply being unable to provide basic childcare due to loss of ordinary function can impact custody decisions.

Although the mental illness alone does not automatically disqualify you from custody, an active co-occurring drug addiction might. As Brenna Davis writes:

All states use the ‘best interests of the child’ standard in determining custody arrangements and parents who abuse substances generally can’t provide a home that is in the child’s best interests. Thus, it’s unlikely an addict will receive primary or even joint custody of his children.

In order to prove to the court that you are in an active state of addiction, the judge may compel you to undergo a substance abuse evaluation conducted by a court-appointed evaluator. This evaluation determines both the current impact of addiction on your life and the potential impact your continued drug abuse could have on your child. While you have the opportunity to present evidence that you are indeed fit to parent, the truth is that an active state of addiction is inherently antithetical to fit parenting.

Maintaining or Regaining Custody in Recovery


So how do you maintain or regain custody when you are struggling with a severe mental illness? By seeking treatment. While many people fear that getting help will only confirm the existence of a mental health disorder and therefore threaten custody, the presence of a severe mental illness is rarely in question and denying it does not help you. Getting the support you need to create a safe and healthy living environment for yourself and your child, however, does. In doing so, you demonstrate an awareness of the problem and that you are taking meaningful steps toward healing, potentially giving you the evidence you need for a favorable custody ruling

The same is true for those struggling with a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.  “Many states have a rebuttal presumption that it is not in the best interests to reside with an addicted parent,” explains Davis. “A rebuttal presumption is one in which an accused parent can rebut an assertion of substance abuse by explaining the addiction is in the past.” Being able to provide hard evidence that you are in a state of recovery following treatment is invaluable to creating a case for rebuttal. Even in cases where only visitation is initially allowed, the ability to demonstrate continuing sobriety and commitment to treatment will only bolster your case when you petition for custody in the future.

It is never treatment that will compromise your custody case. In fact, as Anna Green points out, it is untreated illness that is the true danger, while “treating the underlying illness is often key to protecting custody and parental rights.” There is nothing to fear in healing; it can only help you in your quest to protect your relationship with and your legal rights to your child.

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The Role of Your Mental Health Treatment Program


If you are struggling with a mental health disorder (with or without a co-substance abuse disorder) that may compromise your custody, it is imperative to seek comprehensive treatment as soon as possible to start the journey toward healing. For many, a residential treatment program offers the best chance of success by immersing you in an intensive therapeutic community that provides more therapy in 30 days than is possible in a year of outpatient care. This intensive treatment can lead to rapid, holistic healing, helping you restore function and stability as quickly as possible.

It is also vital to seek out a treatment program that is familiar with the unique needs of parents with custody concerns. Your treatment program should work with you to achieve your goals and provide clear, accurate written assessments of your progress throughout treatment that can be presented to the court as evidence of your parenting fitness. Thorough, documented aftercare planning is also necessary to ensure a seamless transition back to your everyday life, allowing you to retain and build on the progress made in residential care. Proving that you are participating in ongoing recovery, whether from your mental illness or your co-occurring substance abuse disorder, goes a long way toward strengthening your case for custody.

However, it is important to recognize that custody is not the end goal in and of itself. By getting the kind and quality of care you need, you are able to make the emotional and behavioral changes necessary to create a more stable, healthy life, one in which you are able to care for both yourself and your child is the real endgame. Seeking treatment that helps you unlock your full potential and engage your own innate ability to heal is truly transformative in ways that go beyond the legal system and an essential step toward creating a brighter future for your family.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental illness as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one make lasting change.

Image Source: Unsplash user Danielle MacInnes