Child Custody – What information will a judge consider? Mental Illness.

As the third installment of this series on child custody, I’ll address how the judge in a recent case addressed the fact that one of the parents had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

In this case, the parent had been treated and medicated as far back as their early teens and even hospitalized. But, that medication and treatment gradually ended as symptoms improved. However, as the parent entered their early 20’s the symptoms began to return, although the parent did not recognize the symptoms for some time.

After the child was born, and while the child was still young, the parent experienced an episode in which suicide was contemplated, or at least the parent’s behavior made it appear as though suicide was a risk.

Immediately after that episode the parent sought treatment and began taking medication for the Bipolar Disorder. Since beginning the medication a few years prior to the trial, the parent had been very stable, with no episodes or erratic behavior.

The opposing parent made a point of focusing on this parent’s mental illness at trial. The diagnosed parent countered by pointing out the self-motivated pursuit of treatment and their stability since resuming medication. There was no evidence that the parent’s illness had any negative impact on the child. Further, because there was a genetic link to the parent’s mental illness, there was some concern that the child might one day also be diagnosed with a mental illness. An argument was made that the diagnosed parent’s family network in his hometown would be better able to support the child if mental illness became an issue down the road, because the family had experience with mental illness in the family.

The judge awarded custody to the non-diagnosed parent. However, the judge essentially made the mental illness a non-factor. The diagnosed parent was ordered to continue treatment and medication as directed by his physician (the parent would have done this without an order). The judge made no mention of the mental illness as having an impact on the child or the custody decision. Further, the diagnosed parent was given very liberal visitation, even though they had relocated to a different state. In fact, it was my feeling that the mental illness played no part in the judge’s decision.

The lesson in this case is that a parent that has been diagnosed with a mental illness does not have to fear being prejudiced by their mental illness in a custody case. A parent diagnosed with a mental illness can limit, or maybe even eliminate the affect of a mental illness on a custody determination by showing the court that they have established a stable course of treatment, that the treatment has stabilized their behavior, that the mental illness has no affect on the child and that they intend to maintain their course of treatment.

In the next post, I will address an issue that is fairly common in North Carolina: The use of ATV’s and motorcycles by children.

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