Battling the System and Yourself

Difficult Custody  Battles For The Mentally Ill

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NEW YORK – Erica Orr, 25, lives in the Bronx with her husband Micheal and her two children Emma, 3, and Michel, 1. Though they seem like an ordinary family, behind the smiles and the laughter in Orr’s household lies a constant fear that some day soon her family will be no more.

Orr was diagnosed with bipolar disorder while she was in foster care after being neglected by her mother. While trying to do everything right for her own children, Orr has been in a constant battle with the Administration for Children’s Services to keep her two girls with her.

Mental Illness
Mental illness is an issue prevalent throughout the foster care system, with children often coming from families where mental health problems were the cause of abuse and neglect. A study by Mental Health America concluded that 16 percent of the New York families involved in the foster care system and 21 percent of those receiving family preservation services from the ACS include a parent with a mental illness.

When suspicions of neglect are expressed to the ACS, parents are at a high risk of losing their children. A chart of how this process works can be found here: ACS Child Safety Investigation Process

“The general sequeli is to repeat the behavior that was done to you,” says Dr. Susan Philliber, an independent researcher on youth development. Children coming from dysfunctional households like Orr’s are often diagnosed with a mental illness of their own. The abuse and neglect she endured at home possibly contributed to her mental health difficulties.

Forensic Assessment
But the legal and mental health system show several flaws when it comes to both diagnosis as well as forensic procedures in custody cases. Phil Segal, a former family court judge (1991- 2001) and now a family court lawyer says the Family Court Mental Health Clinic “too readily recommends the children be placed in foster care,” meaning many fit parents ended up losing their kids.

Family Court Lawyer Phil Segal

To avoid a similar fate, Orr takes mood stabilizers daily while balancing her health care studies with    anger management classes, parenting classes and therapy as well as taking her kids go to school and to their doctor’s appointments. Her youngest daughter Michel is content when she’s with her mom. Orr, sitting on a rocking chair in her living room gently rocks her daughter to sleep while she lies peacefully on her breast.

Good Parenting by the Mentally Ill
According to Harvard Psychiatrist Laura Miller, having mental health problem doesn’t necessarily mean being a bad parent. In a CWW report she says that a mother who is aware of her own mental illness is more likely to be an adequate parent than one who denies she has problems. Orr, now living with a constant fear of losing her children, agrees. “I don’t believe my mental illness affects my parenting skills. I do everything necessary to keep my kids safe,” she says.

Erica Orr and Her Daughter Michel

Family court lawyers also report problems with the system of dealing with custody battles, says a  2009 report by the Child Welfare Watch (CWW). Almost everyone who is evaluated is given a diagnosis, they say, and evaluations are requested far more often than necessary, even in cases in which there is no mental health allegation.

The Future of Mental Health Assessment: A Money Issue
To avoid stigmatizing mothers with diagnoses of mental illness too easily to justify a child’s placement in foster care Dr. Miller told the CWW that the child welfare system should consistently use criteria such as self-awareness to determine who is a fit parent. These evaluations should be carried out by a team including a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a social worker, rather than by one clinician as is now typically the case.

But the changes necessary to reform the forensic procedures to assess a parent’s mental health aren’t easy to implement, especially in rough economic times. “Family Court is a poor person’s court, and is completely underfunded,” says Philip Segal. “There are not nearly as many judges as they need, not nearly as many lawyers as they need, not enough caseworkers, not enough investigators, not enough money, not enough anything.” And Segal claims that therefore “the court is asked to do the impossible.”

In spite of the hard battle Orr has been fighting, along with many others, she is on the path to getting full and independent custody of her children as the amount of time she is being monitored is being reduced gradually. “It is very stressful, but it is worth the fight,” she says.“I know that they [my children] are safe with me.”

About Loretta van der Horst