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January 22, 2023 Feature

Parenting Plans Involving Mental Health Issues

Stacy D. Heard

An often unmentioned or hidden mental illness is a significant factor in determining parenting plans in the bests interests of the children. The best interests include the needs of each child, the parent/child relationship, the parenting capacities of each parent, and protecting children from exposure to mental health problems of parents. To determine whether a case involves mental health issues, it is necessary to retain a parenting evaluator to identify specific mental health issues such as diagnosed mental illness, psychological adjustment problems, personality disorders, domestic violence screening, substance abuse, and child maltreatment. The parenting evaluator will also make recommendations regarding restrictions for a parent.

Effective parenting plans directly address specific issues and/or disorders. The evaluator’s assessment should specifically define each mental health issue. A specialized assessment of harms/risks posed to children and parenting by domestic violence should also be done as cases involving domestic violence often involve disordered parents whose parenting abilities are affected. For example, the victim’s parenting is affected by the domestic violence perpetrator sabotaging/interfering with the adult victim’s parenting time and the domestic violence perpetrator’s parenting focuses on controlling the intimate partner and not on parenting in the best interests of the child. Parenting plan provisions should be included to protect the victim parent and the children.

An evaluator’s recommendations should include how the child’s exposure to mental health issues can be decreased and how support for bonds between children and disordered parents can be strengthened. These should also include specific provisions to achieve this, including increases or decreases of restrictions of a parent based upon that parent’s therapy or treatment goals. Parenting plans must also include a clear dispute resolution process, often limited to court involvement due to the level of conflict in these types of cases. Typically, these parenting plans support parallel parenting as it is difficult for disordered parents to agree on issues involving the children.

Child development, including a child’s attachment to each parent, is highly relevant to parenting plans. Considerations to be made are how a parent’s mental health issues compromise that parent’s attachments to children. The children’s attachment styles are linked to parents’ behaviors and sensitivities to children. Parents with mental health issues and personality disorders are compromised in making secure attachments with children. This must be considered in allocating time with each parent.

Frequently, cases involving mental health issues never escape ongoing litigation due to high conflict between parents. Parents with mental health issues are typically challenged in their reasoning and failure to act in the best interests of the children. The most important role the lawyer has in these cases is to draft a detailed parenting plan with provisions to protect the children.

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Stacy D. Heard

Seattle, WA

Stacy D. Heard of the Law Office of Stacy D. Heard, PLLC in Seattle, Washington, has served clients for over 20 years. She specializes in matrimonial and family law, divorce, high-conflict parenting plan/child custody issues, international custody disputes and Hague Convention cases, complex financial issues, relocation, restraining orders, child support, and modifications of parenting plans and child support orders.