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Family Court can be a particularly dreadful place. It is, by its very nature, designed to set off a firestorm of emotions and anxiety for litigants. Its cases involve the most intimate and personal matters. Matters which, at their core, threaten an individual's sacred constitutionally-based freedoms: the right of privacy, the right to raise your children without unnecessary government intervention, and the right to be free from illegal search and seizure.
Family Court can be especially challenging for people who are poor, racial minorities, or people with psychiatric disabilities. For these communities, navigating the labyrinth that is Family Court is extremely challenging. Usually poverty, gaps in resources, lack of education, and an inability to afford good legal counsel are the contributing factors to difficult experiences in Family Court. Parent-litigants with psychiatric disabilities must face an additional set of challenges; overcoming stigma and the public perception that often surrounds mental illness.
Many of psychiatrically disabled clients enter Family Court saddled with the stigma associated with mental illness; a stigma which often produces shame, a tremendous amount of self-doubt, and withdrawal from and distrust of societal systems. This stigma, coupled with the public's perception--a perception held by lawyers, judges and advocates-- that mentally ill people are violent, lack the aptitude to provide adequate care for their children, and are generally unfit to parent, precipitates termination of parental rights proceedings. With these factors stacked against them, one can see why Mental Health America reports that parents with disabilities lose custody of their children at a rate of 70%-80%.
Advocates for clients with disabilities often serve as the first line of defense and most important advisers for these clients. To ensure that disabled clients have a fair opportunity in court, it is essential to provide them with first-rate advocacy; advocacy which is a mix of legal advice, social work support, and technical assistance. If you represent clients with disabilities, share the following tips with your clients to assist them in taking control of and self-direct their Family Court cases.
About the Author
Charlyne Peay is a Child Welfare Specialist in the Policy Division of the Children's Bureau at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, DC. Mrs. Peay is admitted to practice in New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia.