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Should Mental Illness be a Grounds for Termination of Parental Rights in Kansas?

Should Mental Illness be a Grounds for Termination of Parental Rights in Kansas?
June 5, 2014 LS_admin

Back in 2009, Mindi, a 25 year old new mother, experienced what doctors later determined was a psychotic episode.  She had been staying at a cousin’s house in Kansas while trying to get her life back on track after escaping an abusive relationship.  She had suffered from depression since the birth of her daughter and became distrustful of her relatives.  Mindi essentially suffered from a mental breakdown.  She transported her baby to the hospital and told the doctors she believed someone had raped her child.  The medical staff found no evidence of such and referred Mindi for a psychological evaluation.  The authorities took custody of Mindi’s daughter that night, and she has been fighting ever since to get her back.

Since her psychotic episode, Mindi has rebounded.  She attends therapy, is a shift manager at a big box chain, and has her own apartment.  A doctor who evaluated Mindi diagnosed her with a mix of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.  She believed neither disorder would impact Mindi’s parenting.

In 2011, Mindi had a second child, Jace.  Kansas authorities took Jace at birth and placed him in foster care due to Mindi’s pending case over her daughter.  However, Jace was soon returned to his mother after a therapist found she posed no risk to her child.  Despite this, Mindi’s daughter remained in foster care.

Mindi’s case, then handled by the Missouri court system, is impacted by the concept of “predictive neglect.”  Missouri and 30 other states allow courts to terminate a parent’s rights if authorities conclude the mother or father has a mental illness that renders them incapable of safely raising their child.  Officials must present evidence the illness presents a threat, but there is no need to demonstrate actual harm or neglect.  It is unclear how many termination of parental rights cases are based on mental illness, but it is estimated to be several thousand per year.

Proponents of the current system cite to the statistical danger of children being raised by parents with serious mental illness.  They believe protection must trump parental rights.  Others, however, question the lack of effort made to assist these parents in obtaining the medical treatment they need to continue to be good parents.

Mindi’s case seems to highlight the potential downfall of the theory of “predictive neglect.”  Six months after Mindi brought her daughter to the hospital, a parenting counselor reported that Mindi was ready to be reunited with her daughter and would be there for her emotionally and mentally.  Despite this evidence, and changes to Missouri’s laws that make it clear a child cannot be removed on the basis of mental illness absent a specific showing as to the relationship between the illness and harm to the child, Mindi’s parental rights were terminated.

Mindi appealed the trial court’s decision, and the appellate court sided with her, finding the state had failed to establish the child would be harmed in continuing a relationship with her mother.  Mindi began preparing for her daughter’s return, only to have her hopes dashed once again by a phone call stating that her daughter’s foster parents, joined by the state, had appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Months later, Mindi received that call she had been dreading—the Missouri Supreme Court sided with the trial court, finding the judge had broad discretion in making a decision to terminate parental rights.  One lone dissenter expressed disapproval over the verdict, feeling there had been no showing the mother could not adequately care for the child.

Mindi’s case, and that of so many mentally ill parents like her, calls to question our court’s current stance on mental illness as it relates to termination of parental rights as well as child custody, during which mental illness often becomes a factor.

If you are facing losing your child in a child in need of care or termination of parental rights case, or if you are involved in a custody battle, the experienced Kansas Family Law Attorneys at McDowell Chartered can help.  For decades, McDowell Chartered has assisted families throughout Kansas in all legal matters concerning children and families.  Call us today at (316) 633-4322 to schedule a consultation.




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