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Could a mental illness diagnosis affect your custody case?

If you are an Alaska parent living with a mental illness, you may have the very real fear that your diagnosis could lead to your losing custody of your children to their other parent, a family member or even the state.

In the past, it was fairly common for some courts to routinely remove children from the care of a mentally ill parent, or to severely restrict that parent's rights to visitation with their children. Because of this, many parents resisted medical treatment to diagnose and treat their conditions, which only made their mental health status even more precarious.

That was a lose-lose situation for all concerned. While it was once common for as many as 80 percent of parents with mental illnesses to lose custody of their children, family law judges are often more enlightened when it comes to making custody decisions that affect children's lives.

What is best for my children?

The courts are bound by one primary directive in custody cases -- do what is best for the children in question. That means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to custodial dilemmas.

Most will agree that children are not well-served living in a home with a parent who is unmedicated and experiencing a psychotic break. But the spectrum of mental illness is wide and varied. In most family law courts in the United States, simply having a diagnosed mental illness is no longer a sufficient reason to restrict or curtail a parent's custodial rights, unless there are other factors at play.

What if I require hospitalization?

As is sometimes necessary, parents with mental illnesses may require hospitalization from time to time, just as might a diabetic parent or one with multiple sclerosis or cancer. If there is another responsible adult ready to step in and provide competent care for the minor children while the parent recovers, the continuity of the custody arrangements do not have to be broken.

Research has shown that grandparents and other family members often step in as caregivers when the kids' custodial parent requires in-patient psychiatric care. If this could become an issue for you in the future, it may be wise to have a contingency plan outlined for the children's emergency care.

My ex is threatening to use my mental illness against me

Children's Protective Services (CPS) and the family law courts have the right to remove children from the homes of parents whose mental illnesses render them incapable of supervising and caring for their children. It is possible that an ex-spouse or partner could attempt to manipulate the legal system by making allegations that could lead to a custody battle.

If you are worried that this could happen to you, you need to be proactive about the situation. Learning about your legal rights in the matter is always prudent, as is apprising your psychiatrist or other mental health professional of the possibility of a custody challenge based on your diagnosis.

You and your doctor can then devise a treatment plan that will allow you to address your mental health issues in a way that keeps you compliant with your medication and competent to rear your children despite having a mental illness.

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