Child Welfare Watch: Hard Choices

Caring for the children of mentally ill parents

The Center for New York City Affairs and the Center for an Urban Future today issued a joint report documenting the issues facing poor and working class parents with mental illness and their children.

Child Welfare Watch, Vol. 17, “Hard Choices: Caring for the children of mentally ill parents,” looks at issues facing parents with psychiatric problems who come in contact with the city’s child welfare system. Today, adults who struggle with mental illness are as likely as anyone else to become parents. Yet the city’s human services programs are neither structured to support single and low-income parents with mental illness who are trying to raise their children, nor able to systematically evaluate a parent’s ability to care for her children despite her illness.

Highlights of the report’s findings include:

  • In New York City, as many as one-fifth of parents who come in contact with the foster care system have a diagnoses of mental illness. A parent who comes in contact with the foster care system is much more likely to have her children enter foster care if she has a mental illness. Experts estimate that between one-quarter and three-quarters of parents with serious mental illness lose custody of their children.
  • Last year, New York City children were removed from their homes in 56 percent of Family Court abuse and neglect cases that involved an allegation of mental illness, while in cases that did not include such an allegation, children were removed and placed in foster care only 35 percent of the time.
  • Some parents with mental illness can safely care for their children if given the proper supports. Supported-housing programs such as the Emerson-Davis Family Development Center, in Brooklyn, offer single mothers with mental illness the opportunity to live with their children while receiving help and supervision. But programs like this are extremely rare, and nationwide, there is little coordination or communication between the mental health system, geared to treat adults, and the child welfare systems designed to protect children.
  • In many cities, including New York City, Family Court makes critical decisions about a parent’s fitness based on mental health evaluations. But these evaluations can be highly subjective and often offer contradictory diagnoses. Inaccurate diagnoses can hurt families by minimizing the problems of a parent who is seriously ill, or by exaggerating the problems of a parent who is able to cope.
  • How successfully women with mental illness care for their children depends not just on their particular diagnoses, but also on the level of support they receive at home, their awareness of their own illness and their willingness to accept professional help, researchers in Chicago found. The Chicago court system has used this information to create a more reliable method of evaluating a parent’s fitness.

The report features the stories of families affected by mental illness and the foster care system, including: a young parent who asked for help with her depression only to have her children removed; another young mom who is learning effective parenting and coping with her bi-polar disorder with the help of preventive support services; and a teen’s experiences growing up with parents diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In addition, the report found that many New York City foster children with severe mental illness who need long-term residential care do not get the help they need. Meanwhile, residential programs designed to serve upstate children with severe mental illness have beds sitting empty.

And, in light of the rising wave of municipal and state budget cuts which will hit human services hard, including many preventive family supports, the 17th issue ofChild Welfare Watch looks at how the stress of poverty has profound implications for a parent’s mental health, as well as for the brain development of young children.

The report also contains policy recommendations drafted by the Child Welfare Watch advisory board aimed at helping policymakers address issues of mental illness and parenting.