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Podcast: Mental Illness and Parenting

When is a mere diagnosis of mental illness enough to sever a parent’s ties to her child? And how much effort must child welfare officials legally exert before they do so? Seth Freed Wessler joins Assistant Managing Editor Eric Umansky in the Storage Closet Studio this week to talk about our latest story, on the complicated intersection of mental illness stigma and child protection.

Wessler’s reporting showed that in dozens of states, courts have the power to sever parents’ connection to a child if authorities conclude that a mental illness might render them incapable of proper care – even if there’s no evidence of actual harm or neglect.

To be clear, he says, there are parents whom mental illness renders unable to care for their children. But there are many others harmed by laws based, as Umansky points out, on "a very different conception than the latest understanding of what mental illness is and the ability to moderate it."

Take the case of Mindi, whose daughter was taken away at 5 months old after a psychotic break. Five years later, Mindi has lost parental rights and has no contact with her daughter. Meanwhile, her life has long been stabilized, and she is now capably raising a son.

Indeed, Wessler says, "A lot of these laws were written during a time when many mental health professionals -- and society at large -- sort of believed that serious mental illness discounted people from participation in a whole set of normal parts of life, including being a parent. In fact, you know, for a long time, people who had serious mental illness -- then often called 'feeble minded' -- were institutionalized and in some states legally sterilized."

While science and culture have come a long way since then, antiquated laws remain on the books in many states.

In the case of Rudy, a Bronx man denied custody of his daughter, mental health professionals evaluated him too narrowly, Wessler’s reporting found, never even reaching out his sister and mother, who were at the ready to live with him and help him raise the child. Rudy and his lawyer hired another evaluator, who talked to his sister and case workers and evaluated the reality instead of merely the diagnosis. "His analysis is, yeah, this man might have trouble raising his daughter by himself, but that's not what he's asking to do," Wessler says.

But the response from child welfare officials? Wessler sums it up: "Well, it's too little, too late -- sorry, your kid has been in foster care too long."

Hear their full conversation on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher, and read Wessler’s report on parents with mental illness here.

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