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36 Clearinghouse Rev. 295 (2002-2003)
Parenting in the Face of Prejudice: The Need for Representation for Parents with Mental Illness

handle is hein.journals/clear36 and id is 295 raw text is: 








Parenting in the Face of Prejudice:

The Need for Representation for

Parents with Mental Illness





By Colby Brunt and Leigh Goodmark


Imagine that you have just become a par-
ent for the first time--one of the happiest
events of your life. You learn to feed,
comfort, protect, and care for your baby
through trial and error; you make mis-
takes along the way but generally give
your child excellent care. When you feel
overwhelmed-as every new parent
does-you turn to family, friends, and
other systems for support and assistance.
However, despite everything that you are
doing for your child, representatives from
a child protection agency come to inves-
tigate your home. Why? Because you,
unlike a majority of parents, have a his-
tory of mental illness. And, in the eyes of
some child protection agencies, that his-
tory, in and of itself, is sufficient reason to
believe that your child is at risk of child
abuse or neglect.
    The stress of the child protection
agency's intervention causes you to
relapse, and your child is removed from
your care. The longer you are away from
your child, the worse your mental health
becomes-and the less likely you are to
have your child returned to you.
    This is the crisis that many mentally
ill parents face. Misconceptions and mis-
givings about the ability to parent while
dealing with mental illness abound. State
agencies and courts frequently intervene
on behalf of the children of mentally ill


parents not because the parent has
harmed the child but because they believe
that mentally ill individuals cannot be ade-
quate parents. Stereotypes and assump-
tions about mentally ill parents predis-
pose child welfare agencies and courts to
believe that removal of a child is neces-
sary even before the parent ever has the
opportunity to care for the child. Mentally
ill parents face similar problems in fami-
ly court when custody evaluators, guard-
ians ad litem, and judges refuse to believe
that granting custody or visitation to a par-
ent with mental illness can be in a child's
best interest.
    Parenting is wonderful, fulfilling, and
joyful-and heartbreaking, demanding,
and stressful. The stress of parenting is
magnified for parents with mental illness-
es. As Employment Options Inc., an orga-
nization working with mentally ill parents,
reminds its clients, Being a parent
requires 100% focus and energy. Being a
parent with mental illness requires even
more.1 Although mental illness can ren-
der some individuals unfit to parent, the
vast majority of mentally ill parents simply
need access to services and supports that
can help them parent effectively.
    One important, often overlooked, ser-
vice is legal assistance. Mentally ill par-
ents need to understand their rights in the
child welfare and family court systems.


  1 EMPLOYMENT OPTIONS INC., FAMILY PROJECT-SUPPORTED PARENTING 1 (n.d.).

SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2002 1 JOURNAL OF POVERTY LAW AND POLICY


Colby Brunt is a staff attorney,
Clubhouse Family Legal Support
Project, Mental Health Legal
Advisors Committee, 294
Washington St., Suite 320,
Boston, MA 02108;
617.338.2345 ext. 31;
cbrunt@email.mhl.state, ma. us.
Leigh Goodmark is assistant
staff director, American Bar
Association Center on Children
and the Law, 740 15th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20005;
202.662.1758,
GoodmarL@ staff.abanet.org.


295

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