The Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry have done much in recent times to raise awareness of mental health and dispel the stigma attached to it, by speaking about their own personal experiences. Is this enough to provide reassurances to parents with mental illness whose children are the subject of care proceedings?
When the court is concerned with making decisions about the upbringing of any child, its paramount consideration is the child’s welfare. Parents are not expected to be perfect but to provide “good enough” care to their children.
The kind of mental health issues which would affect a parent ranges from depression and anxiety, to diagnoses of personality disorders and psychosis. The courts will consider whether the presenting illness or condition impacts on the parents’ ability to meet the children’s physical, emotional, educational, and social needs.
The starting point will be for the court to order an expert assessment of the parent(s) concerned to establish both diagnosis and prognosis, and to identify whether the issues are likely to prevent the parent(s) concerned from meeting the children’s needs. The court will also consider whether, if any treatment is recommended, the parent is likely to engage with that treatment and whether this can be done within the children’s timeframe.
In the past the Court was prepared to adjourn final hearings to allow parents to undergo therapy, and for there to be a further report to assess whether the child(ren) concerned can remain in or be returned to their parents’ care. Since 2014 the court has been constrained by the 26 week time frame in which it must make final decisions about the children’s care. This can be an obstacle to parents who have to take part in therapy which lasts for a long time. This may result in the children being placed with family members or in foster care. Parents can however apply to discharge the final order once they have completed the recommended therapy and can show that they are able to care for the child(ren). This is not satisfactory when children are of adoptable age, and if a Placement Order is made, the parents concerned will have limited time to apply to discharge that Order and also limited time to prove to the Court that the concerns which led to the Placement Order being made, no longer exist.
If parental mental ill health is coupled with drug and/or alcohol abuse, for example where the parents concerned use illicit substances to self-medicate to deal with their anxieties, this can result in concerns around neglect which might make for a less favourable prognosis upon assessment. Conversely if the only issue is short term depression which is well managed through medication, that is much less likely to result in parents having their child(ren) removed from their care, but some supervision and monitoring of the situation might be considered necessary.
It is unlikely that the recent and welcome public awareness and destigmatisation of mental health is sufficient to enable parents with mental health issues to retain the care of their children in care proceedings. However the author of this article hopes that it will encourage parents to seek help as early as possible and to engage with any recommended treatment or therapy in order to work towards keeping their children with them with some support, or having their children rehabilitated to them wherever possible.
Anna Perry is an experienced specialist child care solicitor who regularly acts for parents in care proceedings. Anna is also accredited to act for children through their Guardians in all children related matters.
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