How Mental Health May Factor into the Legal Mix
The ability to raise one’s children the way one sees fit is a fundamental, constitutional right. However, all rights, even those guaranteed by the United States Constitution, have more or less obvious boundaries. Stated differently, no right is unconditional. For example and related to this blog post, children must be educated and live in a healthy and safe home.
The issue of a parent with mental health diagnoses, and his or her ability to parent, is a complex medico-legal question and difficult one in any situation. This requires a case-by-case analysis. Some mental health disorders may not affect parenting in any meaningful way at all (for example, controlled mild depression or adult ADHD).
On the other hand, some mental health disorders such as bipolar and mental retardation (the medical terminology for persons with IQs below a certain level), without proper medication and treatment, may be a factor in custodial decisions, and in the most extreme cases, determining whether to terminate parental rights. A termination of parent’s right removes all legal rights and responsibilities related to a biological or adopted child.
In a recent case, the Indiana Court of Appeals examined the difficult issues surrounding mental health and the termination of a parent’s right to rear her or her child; more specifically, the question the Court wrested with is whether a prohibition against involuntary termination of parental rights for all mentally retarded persons is proper or allowable. The Court held that it was not1. As a general matter, and learning point consistent with Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. blogs, most all blanket prohibitions have exceptions.
The case, in the termination of T.B. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, the Department of Child Services became involved after it was reported that Mother’s two (2) young children were being left at home for several hours at a time in the care of a mentally handicapped babysitter who was only thirteen (13) years old.
On investigation, the home was observed to be in “disarray”. And the children were not being properly fed or cared for medically; and a child as young as five (5) had been left home alone on several occasions.
DCS filed CHINS (Children in Need of Services) petition, and Mother was offered aid and services, including personal therapy, parenting (education) classes, and home-based therapy. Through the course of these services, Mother was diagnosed as being low functioning cognitively and being very reliant on others.
Further, the Mother did not follow through with her services and therapy, missing over one-half her sessions. She was not compliant with taking her medications, and could not maintain the home safe for her children. Mother went on to be arrested twice during the course of CHINS services, and continued to have distorted thoughts, including testifying that she had “alien genes”.
Additionally, DCS presented evidence that the emotional and physical well-being of the children greatly improved while in foster care, with their grades going up and nightmares decreasing. Under these facts, DCS sought to end the CHINS by terminating the Mother’s parental rights. The trial court, after hearing this and other evidence, terminated Mother’s parental rights. Mother appealed.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals noted that the State must prove several factors to terminate one’s parental rights. One key showing is that the reason for placement outside of the parent’s home will not likely be remedied, and correspondingly, the termination is in the best interests of the children, effectively being the only option to protect the children.2
The Court went on to express a key concept which is that termination of Mother’s rights to her children was not a “penalty” against Mother, but a necessity to meet the best interests of the children. To keep perspective, the Court further noted that “mental retardation, standing alone, is not a proper ground for termination of parental rights”. However, due to Mother’s non-compliance with assistance, termination was affirmed.
As applied, the decision took into account T.B.’s mental health issues, but also how Mother failed to comply with treatment and services. By not utilizing or continuing services required, Mother lost her parental rights, again not solely because of her mental health issues, but her inability or unwillingness to control same and engage the services DCS offered, which precluded her ability to meet the children’s needs and best interests.
Clearly, the Indiana court do not take balancing a parent’s mental health with harms thereby to the children lightly; and mental health issues are not a means to terminate parental rights involuntarily just on their face. However, if mental health issues endanger the lives and well-being of children, and this cannot or will not be controlled through treatment, medication, and/or services, termination of parental rights may be a course of last resort by DCS through termination proceedings.
This is exactly what we should want and expect as taxpayers and citizens of our DCS and judiciary: The ability to make informed difficult (seemingly impossible decisions) to protect our children and ensure their (our future). We as a society fulfill our part in this process by being informed by this blog post, for example, and providing support for those who serve in DCS and the judiciary as public servants.
Understanding the severity of different types of mental health issues, along with the need and how to comply with services, is the key to keeping mental health, CHINS proceedings, and termination proceeding in context relative to maintaining a safe and healthy environment for children. This is the objective of DCS and the Indiana trial and appellate courts.
We at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. hope that this blog post has been educational regarding the balance between a parent’s mental health and legal implications for a parent and his or her children. This blog post was written by Bryan Ciyou, Esq. and Jessica Keyes. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates practice throughout the state.
- T.B. v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 2012.
- See Ind. Code §31-35-2-4 2012 for the current statute.