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Working to reunite families torn apart by mental illness

May 1, 2009
by Charlyne Brumskine Peay
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A program helps parents with psychiatric disabilities regain custody of their children

Parents with psychiatric disabilities face many challenges, especially if their children are placed in foster care-the cards are stacked against them regaining custody. To help reunite families, the Urban Justice Center's Mental Health Project (MHP) created a program to help parents with psychiatric disabilities involved in New York State's family court system. To illustrate the obstacles these parents face in regaining custody, I begin with a short story of a particularly tragic case.

Lucy's story

I walked into the MHP reception area where clients wait for their attorneys. Lucy Jones had arrived a few minutes early for our appointment (All names in this article have been changed to preserve our clients' privacy).

“Ms. Jones?” I asked as I reached out to shake her hand. “I am Charlyne Peay. I am the attorney who spoke to you on the phone.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied, and followed me into my office, where she began telling me why she was here. Lucy started slowly. She had a 10-year-old son named Terry she loved very much, but he had been separated from her by the state of New York.

Lucy explained that during most of her adult life, she had lived on and off the streets of New York City, struggling to keep steady employment and maintain relationships. Not until she was diagnosed with schizophrenia as an adult did she begin to understand the patterns of her life. Following her diagnosis, she was placed in a homeless shelter that served psychiatrically disabled adults, where she met her son's father. A couple months into their relationship, she was pregnant. Consequently, she made every effort to treat her schizophrenia, hoping to become a caring and capable parent for her son. After Terry was born she moved into her own apartment, engaged in psychiatric treatment, and complied with her prescribed medication regimen.

Terry was diagnosed with Klinefelter's syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that can affect various stages of physical, language, and social development. As Terry aged, his behavior became uncontrollable. He had tantrums and became violent when he didn't have his way. Lucy described episodes where he tossed the family's monthly supply of groceries out the window. She dealt with all of this while trying to keep her own illness in remission. Before long, it all became too much for her mental health and she feared for her and Terry's well-being.

Lucy contacted New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS), a government agency mandated to protect the welfare of New York City's children and make diligent efforts to ensure that families at risk of state intervention receive necessary services. She requested services, including therapy, for her son, yet Lucy said the services were never provided. Within a couple of weeks of her call to ACS, Terry was hospitalized. When Lucy refused to take him home from the hospital without services from ACS, a family court petition, alleging child neglect on the basis of mental illness, was filed against her. Terry immediately was placed in foster care.

After his removal and foster care placement, Lucy began decompensating. The loss of custody was almost unbearable. She was alone and ill. She stopped receiving medication and psychotherapy. She was assigned a family court attorney who saw her not as a disabled mother who needed services for her child, but as one of New York's many neglectful and abusive parents who somehow had not been doled out the “nurturing parental gene.” Following two years of unabatedly struggling with her mental illness and battling a child welfare system riddled with biases against parents with psychiatric disabilities, Lucy lost her parental rights to Terry.

Three years after Lucy's parental rights were terminated, Terry languished in a residential treatment center: unadopted and seemingly unadoptable. Terry was a black adolescent with a developmental disorder, and although these factors exponentially decreased his chances of being adopted, foster parents did try to adopt him twice. He had no contact with family members. His mother, the only person who has ever loved him, now was inaccessible. In concluding her story, she told me, “I want the Urban Justice Center to help me visit Terry.”

Helping parents

Until 2008, the MHP attorneys would have ended this meeting frustrated and desperate to find a skilled attorney who could help Lucy. Although MHP annually provides legal representation to more than 1,000 psychiatrically disabled low-income New York City residents with Social Security benefit claims, criminal justice issues, housing court matters, and government entitlement problems, it had to reject clients with family court cases because the project lacked the resources and funding to serve clients with family law matters.

Fortunately, in July 2008 MHP launched its Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities Legal Advocacy Project (PPDLAP) and opened its doors to clients like Lucy, having won a New York State government contract to provide legal services to parents with psychiatric disabilities. The contract guaranteed PPDLAP state funding for one year and required MHP to provide culturally competent legal and nonlegal advocacy, education, and technical assistance to parents with psychiatric disabilities (Continued funding remains uncertain in this economic climate).