SMI PARENTS AND DEPENDENCYRead Now
This is a highly controversial issue in dependency courts. The courts when involved with parents who have SMI consider if the parent's disability render the parent incapable of utilizing reunification services. If court believe so then services can denied under Welf & I C 361.5 (b)(2). If not the court may offer services like medication management, psychological assessment, therapy, and other narrowly tailored services for the parent. This is deceptively simple. Because the child's best interest is the prevailing standard in dependency litigation, minor's counsel and county counsel will make decisions and recommendations to the court even if those recommendations are misplaced due to a lack of knowledge of mental illness. Often the courts deem the time needed for psychiatric stabilization as too lengthy as 6 months to stabilize: "while this may not seem a long period of time to an adult, it can be a lifetime to a young child. Childhood does not wait for the parent to become adequate". In re Marilyn H. (1993) 5 Cal.4th 295, 310. Parents are held to a high standard and when they re-convene for review hearings or CFTs, a parent's temporary relapse could lead to a recommendation by the department for termination of services and a setting of a .26 hearing much to parents' dismay and outrage. In re Elizabeth R. (1995) 35 Cal.App.4th 1774, 1787 is a case where a mentally ill parent who was under LPS conservatorship was able to utilize the services offered and reunify with her two children. However, this case illustrates that parents with mental illness face larger hurdles than others. In this case the appellate court opined that a juvenile court must first consider the circumstances of the mother, who despite being hospitalized for SMI for most of her reunification period, had still substantially complied with her case plan and demonstrated that she could keep her children relatively safe and cared for. The trial court had opined that the mother's mental illness was too "risky" to allow return home and terminated services and set the matter for a .26 hearing to terminate her rights to her children. However, on appeal, the reviewing court found that "the elaborate statutory scheme governing dependency proceedings nor dependency case law deprives the trial court of exercising its discretion to accommodate the special needs of a mother who has mental illness given her unusual circumstances". Simply stated, mother's counsel fought to have evidence of her stability, compliance, and witness testimony preserved in the record to overcome the instant court's "bias" against SMI mothers. Years back, courts operated under the presumption that harm to the child could be presumed from the mere presence of parental mental illness and assumed the children would be "infected". There have been some improvement as you can see with In re Elizabeth R, in which courts must lay a proper basis for a dispositional ruling based on expert testimony that cites to specific examples of how SMI had and would adversely affect the child health and jeopardize the child's safety. Courts should strive to reject any inferences or stereotypes than can be drawn from a labeled SMI diagnosis. The mere fact a mother is labelled bipolar/schizophrenic really tells the court little about her anticipated behavior and its effect on her children. The way a court should use this crucial and yet nebulous SMI diagnosis in ruling on the merits should be only a starting point, not its conclusion. Rather than jumping/rubbing stamping a specific jurisdiction/disposition/ or .26 termination order because the mother is SMI, the diagnosis should guide the court and department in an in-depth examination of her psychiatric history, her current presentation, her previous response to medication therapy, past compliance, and the potential benefits for future therapy with a focus on what effects her behavior will have on her children.
There are many times parents with SMI are given barebones services with no real follow up plan or assistance traveling to get them. Counsel in handling cases with SMI parents need to be aware that services are deemed unreasonable when the court orders limited visitation for parents in a IMD and/or provide no narrowly tailored services to address the parent’s mental disabilities. The converse also applies where the department will unnecessarily provide SMI extra programs that place extra burden on their work schedule. It is error to delegate to a mental health program the sole discretion to decide the length services for a SMI parent. This determination regarding when a parent has satisfactorily completed the mental health services portion of their case plan must be made by the juvenile court. In re Daniel B. (2014) 231 Cal.App.4th 663, 665. Mental health services can also be unreasonable when DCFS notifies a SMI parent that they are generally enrolled in programs but later asserts detriment based on a parent's failure to enroll in a single specific program. The department must maintain adequate contact with MH service providers and accurately to inform the juvenile court and parent of their sufficiency of the enrolled programs needed to meet the case plan's requirements. Given that parents with SMI can struggle to keep track of all of these programs while combatting symptoms of psychosis, they should be given some leeway by the court. These scenarios evidence the bias against SMI parents in the system and yes many SMI parents attract the attention of the department even when their conduct may not necessarily be actions that make their child come within the jurisdiction of the juvenile court per Welf & I C § 300 subdivision (b).
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