Surviving Custody Disputes as a Bipolar Parent

by K. H.
(Centreville, VA)

Parents with Bipolar Disorder face unique challenges when confronted with custodial disputes.

According to Mental Health America, a DC-based advocacy group, only one third of children with a parent with a serious mental illness are being raised by that parent (Making the Invisible Visible: Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities, 2000).

Courts see mental health issues as a severe handicap in parenting, and most often decide against the afflicted parent, even in cases where the mental health issue is found by a court-appointed forensic psychologist to have no bearing on the child or children in question.

Bipolar Disorder is unique among mental illnesses in that patients suffer from little reality distortion and the condition can be effectively controlled by medication and through counseling, while the stigma associated with the illness is greater than all other mental illnesses except for schizophrenia (Bipolar Disorder, 2008).

Perhaps it’s the history behind the illness that has created this stigma, from previously ineffective treatments to the old terminology manic-depression a term that evokes thoughts of mania. Either way, because of the stigma surrounding this mental illness, afflicted parents are put at an incredible disadvantage in custodial disputes. The other parent will often exploit this mental illness to gain an advantage in a custody battle, one that is difficult to overcome, for what can discredit a person more than calling them “crazy” – the more one protests, the "crazier" one sounds.

In many states, the “physical and mental condition of the parent” is listed as one of ten to fifteen “factors” judges must use to determine custody. While this is typically designed to protect children from seriously mentally ill parents who might damage or abuse them, it is more commonly used against parents with a history of minor to moderate mental illness even when well controlled.

Studies show that a parent who uses mental illness as the central focus of a custodial battle wins 70-80% of the time (Mental Health America, 2000), shutting out the afflicted parent from the most important relationship in his or her life - and this doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

So what can a Bipolar parent do when facing a custody battle?

First, the parent can begin by retaining legal counsel that has represented parents with mental illness successfully in the past. Contacting a local bar association is a good way to find a qualified attorney.

Second, the parent can insist upon a forensic psychological evaluation. This evaluation examines a parent’s medical and psychological history, and provides a clear and unbiased picture to the courts about a parent’s current mental state and prognosis, as well as providing recommendations about how to stay in the best mental shape for parenting. The parent should be sure to be as open and honest as possible, so that the court will know that what’s in the evaluation is all there could possibly be to say about the parent’s condition. This is helpful in preventing the opposing party from throwing out the myriad and sundry accusations about the parent with little evidence. A professional evaluation will speak louder than almost any other evidence.

Third, the parent should be sure to have regular contact with a medication manager and talk therapist. With these providers, the parent can write a specific treatment plan. This treatment plan – and following it – can be excellent evidence to a judge that the parent is actively controlling his or her condition and is doing everything he or she can do to be a safe and healthy parent.

Fourth, the parent should maintain an excellent support network which is able to testify in court. This support network will reassure the court that the parent is not only surrounded by people who can hold him or her up during the tough times, but that the children have resources in case of emergencies.

Too often children lose contact with a parent with a mental illness. It is often the final blow to a person struggling with Bipolar Disorder, and often permanently removes the parent from his or her child’s life. While much advocacy is required to raise awareness of judges, lawyers, and other court personnel, for now parents must prepare themselves for a tough battle.

But there is hope. In 2010, I lost custody of my 4-year-old son because my ex-husband used my Bipolar Disorder as the crux of his legal case. I appealed the case, with the support of an experienced attorney, a forensic psychologist, a team of mental health professionals whom I see regularly, and my own support network. After a 7-day custody trial, I was re-awarded custody. My children and I now live in a quiet neighborhood, and enjoy each other every day without fear.

It is my hope that parents out there who face this problem will find a happy outcome, too. When my mental health was attacked, hiding it and denying it was my first reaction; this only made the judge worry. But when I opened up my head and let everyone look inside, there were no monsters, and the judge could see me for who I am – a loving mother.

To defeat the stigma associated with Bipolar Disorder in custodial disputes, we must be seen as individuals, not just as labels.

To all of the Bipolar parents out there who are facing this situation, I wish you luck, and I hope you will be ready.

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