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How Does a Parent’s Mental Health Impact a Child Custody Determination?

Connecticut courts determine child custody based on what is in the best interest of the children. In making its determination, the court will consider many factors. Below is an overview of how a parent’s mental health may play a role in a custody determination.

Does the mental health of each parent impact the child custody determination?

Yes, the parents’ mental health and their capacity and disposition to understand and meet the needs of the child and to create a stable home environment for the child are factors in determining what custody arrangement would be in the best interest of the child.

If a parent has mental health issues, how might this impact the child custody determination?

Having a mental health issue in and of itself will not keep a parent away from his or her children. Rather, the court will consider first and foremost whether the parent’s mental health issue poses a safety risk to the children that needs to be investigated and addressed. Safety risks refer to both the physical safety, as well as the emotional and psychological safety of the children.

In addition to considering whether a parent’s mental health issue affects his or her ability to keep the child physically safe, the court will consider whether and to what degree the parent’s mental health affects the parent’s ability to understand the needs and temperament of the child and the parent’s ability to provide a stable home for the child. If a parent has a mental health issue that is being managed well (e.g. anxiety, depression, or substance use), the parent’s home is stable, and the parent is able to understand the needs of the child, there may be no impact on a custody determination (i.e. decision-making on educational, medical, and religious issues or the parenting schedule).

If there is a mental health issue that needs to be addressed, the court may want to see that the parent is addressing the issues, whether through therapy or some other means. Sometimes, a parent has an undiagnosed disorder and may not recognize his or her mental health issue. That parent may be unaware of the impact it is having on the child and the stability of the home because of that parent’s lack of awareness.

What can I do if I am concerned about the impact of the other parent’s mental health issue on the children?

If you are concerned that the other parent’s mental health issue poses a physical, emotional, or psychological risk to your children’s safety, one option is to file a motion seeking custody orders to prevent the child from being harmed.

If the harm is imminent and irreparable, a parent could file an emergency ex parte motion in an effort to prevent or minimize the harm. A parent can tell the court that the other parent is a risk to the child and the reasons why the child is at risk. A parent should provide personal observations about the other parent’s behavior and ask the court to address the issues.

Another option is to address alleged safety concerns without filing a motion by negotiations between the sides, the assistance of a guardian ad litem or other professionals involved in the case, or through the collaborative process or mediation if you are involved in an alternative dispute resolution process.

If one parent files a motion, what will happen next?

If you are unable to resolve the issues raised in the motion, there will be a hearing, which may or may not include third-party witnesses. The judge may determine who is telling the truth based on the disposition and veracity of the two parents (and other witnesses, if applicable) who are testifying.

Often, the judge will not make a long-term custody order off the bat but may bring in the Family Relations Office, which is an agency within the court, to serve as a neutral investigator and to make recommendations to the court based upon the children’s best interest.

Alternately, if the parents have the resources to afford a guardian ad litem, this neutral party may represent the child’s best interest in serving as a neutral investigator. The Family Relations Office or guardian ad litem may interview third parties, such as teachers and therapists, as well as the children and parents, and report to the court their observations on what arrangement would be in the best interest of the children.

The court will approach the matter from the point of view that a child would benefit from a relationship with both parents so long as it is physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe. It is the parent’s job to make sure that the child is safe, but if the parent is unable do so, then it is the court’s job to put in mechanisms to allow the child to have time and access with the parent in a way that is safe.

What if a parent’s mental health issues are well-controlled now, but it changes after the divorce or final custody determination?

For as long as the children are minors, the child custody orders are modifiable based on a substantial change of circumstances.

What action you would take depends on the emergency nature of the issue. In many instances, you would file a motion to modify custody orders. But if it’s an emergent situation that could result in imminent physical or irreparable psychological or emotional harm to the child, you could file an emergency ex parte application for custody. When an ex parte motion is filed, the court reviews the motion often on the same day and rules on it temporarily, and then the court schedules a hearing to take place within about two weeks.

What other agencies/parties may be involved in the custody determination process?

Our firm routinely works with mental health professionals, substance abuse experts, forensic psychologists, guardian ad litems, and the court’s Family Relations Office. We are able to help our clients interact with these professionals and better understand the impact of said issues on family dynamics and parenting issues during and after the divorce process. These professionals can as neutrals or as our experts as applicable, based upon individualized goals and strategies. These professionals and experts can testify and provide information and recommendations in a neutral capacity or as an expert for one parent, as applicable, which the judge may consider before making a final determination on a child custody matter.

If there are mental health issues involved in your divorce or child custody matter, contact the knowledgeable and strategic family law attorneys of Ruel Ruel Burns & Britt to discuss how to navigate these complex and individualized issues in your family law matters. Call 860-206-9096 or click here.