I was diagnosed with bipolar some 20 yrs ago. 8 yrs ago, thoroughly disillusioned with mental health services and severely depressed at how numb life felt on medication I took control of my recovery and quit the meds, gradually. At the same time I started meditating, tai chi and just generally treating my bipolar from a holistic perspective. It was a bumpy ride but I had certain successes, I remained well, out of hospital and was able to truly tackle the emotional turmoil underneath my depression. In 2009 I had a baby, and then a postpartum relatively mild episode immediately following the birth. I had had cause to think seriously about becoming a parent and during my pregnancy took steps to reconnect to mental health services and made a commitment to going back to medication as soon as it was possible to do so after the birth. I knew I would not be supported or encouraged on my non meds path to recovery and after weighing everything up, decided that whatever I felt about it, for the sake of my child and to protect myself from the implied threat of my child being taken away from me. In the end, I wanted to do everything possible to create a situation where I could be seen to be the responsible parent I am. When I fell ill, signs were noted, and both mental health services and social services were alerted. I cooperated fully, submitted myself for treatment and then placed my daughter in temporary foster care. That was in March 2009. They never gave her back. They concluded that the risk of relapse was too high for me to take care of my daughter and added that the responsibility of caring for a small child was stressful and could therefore trigger a relapse. The assessing social worker displayed a profound lack of understanding about mental health issues in general and failed to consult to any degree of depth with my mental health support and not at all with my treating psychiatrist. I had no option but to go to court. This process meant that an independent psychiatrist was asked to assess me. his conclusion is a purely clinical assessment, I have relapsed before, bipolar is an incurable biochemical disorder of the brain, you will likely relapse again, he interpreted my years of non meds and holistic approach to my mental health as ‘non compliant’. To make matters worse social services decided not only that my child should not be returned to me but that she should be placed with her father, an untreated alcohol and drug addict, with no history of stability or responsibility and lacking in the maturity to take on raising a child. the final hearing is March 2011, I have done everything possible to evidence failures of social services and educate and inform all professionals involved about mental health issues in general and about how I view this condition and ideas which inform my recovery. I know with absolute conviction that the incidence of relapse in the future will be minimal and that I can be a great parent to my child. I would welcome anything you can throw my way or direct to me which could help me present my case in court. Absolutely anything.
Unfortunately we’re getting to your question after you have already had your hearing, but in case it didn’t go as you’d hoped and you’re appealing, or for others out there in a similar situation (and there are many — statistics show that upwards of 70-80% of parents with a mental illness have lost custody of their children), I do have some information to share that could be helpful.
With a case like this, all the stops will have to be pulled out. Question everything that has happened in the past that led to your child going into foster care and subsequently, with her father. Also, take charge of the future and set plans into motion now to show what you are willing to do, and capable of doing, when it comes to being stable around your child.
Let’s start with the basics of what’s already a part of the case:
- You had a full assessment performed by a psychiatrist. All things should be balanced in a court of law, so you have the right to ask that the father undergoes the same assessment. They may not want to do it, but it’s a precaution and shows responsibility on your part that you want your child under the best care, even if that’s not with you.
- On top of the father having psychological testing done, any babysitters or a girlfriend or wife–anyone who would be a major factor in caring for your child–should have the same test. Even if this means people in your support system have to do the same, do it. You never know what could come of it. Especially since you mentioned addiction. That could possibly be from an underlying mental illness. It may seem you’re retaliating or playing dirty, but you’re just concerned. If there is something going on with your child’s father that’s unknown, everyone would be better off if he was treated for that. Just as a “what if”
- Speaking of addiction, most definitely find a way to bring that into the scenario. Let it be known. Find trustworthy people who will verify this fact and who would be willing to go to court, if needed. If a parent is drunk or high, that’s an extreme risk to be taking while caring for a child.
- As far as people going to court to help out, find character witnesses on your behalf — ones who no one can come in and say are unreliable or unstable or anything of the like. Find any way to show yourself in the best light.
- Another way of doing just that is by finding a mental health advocate in your area. This person can help you in many ways, from informing you of your rights to helping you obtain legal assistance. On top of that, an advocate can help you develop, and put into place, a self-care plan. Even if you feel you don’t need it, there is always the chance of relapse and you want to be prepared.
- Find groups that can help you strengthen your parenting skills and help you learn to manage your illness. Your advocate can help with these to an extent, and then help you find the groups or classes you can take.
- You mentioned that you did well with a holistic/supplemental approach to treatment. There are two issues that brings to mind. One, you can have an expert come to court and explain the benefits and say, specifically — to help discredit part of your previous assessment, that it’s not non-compliance. In fact, you did great with that type of treatment. So secondly, that plays to your strengths. You were able to have great control over something naturally … something that many can’t handle with the *correct* medicine.
- That won’t take away everything the doctor said in his assessment, but it will cast a shadow of doubt. Continue with that by trying to have the social worker’s decision thrown out. Your psychiatrist was not contacted. Proper protocol was obviously not followed. There are murder cases that can be thrown out from things as simple as this. It’s worth a try.
- Make sure that your complete cooperation during your time in the hospital is known. Of course it is in the case file and records and such, but make sure it’s brought up to show you have always complied. You did the right thing by going on medicine after you had your baby and you stayed on it. You went along with everything you had to. You’ve jumped through all their hoops. Now make them realize that.
- You could have another expert come in — this one would be someone from the mental health field who can examine the risks and effects of your child not being with you. That in itself could be enough to cause an episode, making even visitation difficult. Yes, this trial is about what’s best for the child, but keeping your mental health top-notch is also important. Any and every little thing adds up.
- This last one can be tricky, but it’s important. You should look into discrimination laws and see if your case fits in any way at all. Think about it — parents with diabetes, epilepsy, paralysis, or Parkinsons generally don’t have their children taken from them. But all are potentially threatening diseases to both the parent and the child. Diabetes doesn’t seem like it belongs on the list with the others, but a Type I diabetic isn’t in control of that disease. It’s autoimmune and isn’t a result of a bad diet or not taking care of oneself. It actually can do exactly what bipolar disorder can. Sufferers can experience extreme fluctuations in mood and functioning due to sugar levels … just like we can have that happen if certain chemicals are off. The similarities are scary, yet I’ve personally never heard of a diabetic losing custody of a child. This is definitely an important one to look into and, if you have an advocate, he or she can help you with that.
There are a few other things to consider, as well.
One is what kind of bipolar you were diagnosed with. This is important because it can help determine the effect of the disease on the family. Each type has a different set of behaviors and, knowing specifically what could or couldn’t happen, can help you with your case. For example, if you’re bipolar II, there isn’t a risk of you having a psychotic episode, so that’s not even an issue. But even if it is a problem because you are bipolar I, if you have your self-care plan in place, you will be better able to prove that you know what to do in every situation and how to keep your child safe.
Another thing to be aware of is that the severity of your disease is one of two things that end up determining custody. The second thing is the absence, or presence, of competent adults in your house while your child is there. Number one was briefly covered in the previous paragraph, and number two is as simple as finding a great support system — or even moving in with someone if you have to. If it will get you your child back, having a stable roommate or family member around can make a big difference.
This last one is probably out of the question for a lot of people, but for those who can make it work, it really does work. If the relationship between parents is at all OK, finding a mediator to help decide things is a much better option than court. So if you can find a way to work this out, you should try it. It doesn’t mean forgetting everything in your arsenal above, but it’s just a less stressful situation and sometimes issues can be reasoned easier.
I do have to add that some states cite mental illness as one of the conditions where a parent who has that illness can lose custody. I’m not sure which states, and laws can always change anyway, but it’s likely to be a harder case to try in those states. But do not let that discourage you in any way. If you use all of the tactics listed, as well as whatever help free university legal aid or an advocate can give you, there’s a good chance you could win — even if it’s only partial custody, it’s better than nothing.
Bipolar disorder, or other mental illnesses, should not make us, who have the disease, lose our families. Fight your hardest to keep your child. You have just as many rights as any other parent — make sure that fact is known!