More than a million adults in the United States have a serious mental illness. They are raising more than two million children. Of all the challenges facing parents with mental illness, loss of child custody is one of the greatest and most disheartening.

Their fear is justified. As many as 70 percent of parents with mental illness lose custody of their children, research suggests, and children raised by parents with mental illness are three times more likely than the general population to have contact with child welfare services.

When parents experience symptoms of mental illness, Child Protective Services often investigates. Even in the absence of evidence of neglect or abuse, children can be removed from the home and resettled in out-of-home placement or foster care.

Parents with mental illness are also at a serious disadvantage when seeking to retain custody rights during divorce proceedings.

Parents who lose their custody rights, as one researcher suggests, can become “parents in name only,” contributing to their stress and a sense of victimization—and the fear of losing custody can also be one reason why parents often are reluctant to seek help in the first place.

It’s not a foregone conclusion, but yes.

In the event parents are reported for abuse or neglect, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) has a range of options, from determining the household is safe and leaving things as they are to determining that children are in danger and need to be removed.

There are two other options in between, however, according to Community Legal Services (CLS). One option is that DHS indicates it has concerns and requests that your family accept assistance. A step up from that is a determination that the children are not safe, together with creation of a voluntary safety plan, which could—for example—involve you and the child moving out of the home temporarily, someone else moving in, or other options to be determined between you and DHS. You don’t have to agree to sign the plan, and if you do, you can opt out later.

If DHS concludes that your child is unsafe in the home and that a safety plan will not resolve the problem, you could be taken to court, CLS notes. One of two things could happen at that stage:

  • DHS will decide whether to remove your child and have an emergency, or “shelter care,” hearing within 72 hours, or;
  • DHS will allow the child to remain in your custody pending a hearing about your case, to take place within 30 days.

Your case might be transferred to a Community Umbrella Agency (CUA), an agency employed by DHS to work with families in these circumstances.

There are options.

  • One is to request “kin placement”—that is, asking that your child be permitted to live with a relative or close friend.
  • Even in the event your child is initially placed outside the family, keep on asking about kin placement. Judges will inquire about kin placement at every hearing, according to CLS.
  • Know that you have a limited time in which to work with the Community Umbrella Agency to identify and accomplish certain goals—such as mental health counseling or drug treatment—and be reunited with your child. That’s because of a law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), which mandates a permanency hearing be held no later than 12 months after the child is place in foster care, to decide the long-term goal for the child. Parental rights can be terminated if the child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.
  • Contact your lawyer as soon as possible. If you don’t have a lawyer, CLS recommends that you call Dependent Court Operations at 215-686-4028 to see if the court has appointed a lawyer for you and to obtain contact information.

SafeTogether teaches parents with mental illness how to create a legally binding family plan that ensures a responsible adult is caring for the children in the home and that the parent is receiving and appropriate psychiatric care so the family can soon return to everyday functioning.

Through SafeTogether, parents establish an integrated support team of friends, family and health professionals with defined roles and responsibilities. Children who are developmentally appropriate are involved in aspects of the plan’s design and creation.

Beyond the classroom, each family receives individual coaching sessions to help them implement their plan.

A triggering event—a parent feeling unwell or a child’s or support team member’s heightened concern—set the plan into action. As the family’s needs change, so too does the SafeTogether plan.

For details, please contact us.