Date: November 17, 2023Attorney: Lynne Strober

Divorce is stressful. It brings out extreme emotions including sadness, fear, agitation, and anger. A spouse may have felt that their relationship was bad for quite a while before one or both agreed to move forward with a divorce.  The demise of the relationship and the subsequent chaos often takes its toll on people’s mental health. 

Mental Health and Ability to Properly Care for Child

When mental health issues are coupled with trying to fight for custody, it can make the situation even more stressful. A Court cannot summarily address a party’s mental health issues; the analysis must be whether the mental health issues have a negative impact on a child. Can the ill party properly care for the child?

When a person has mental health issues, and disorders have been diagnosed, it can make the process more difficult. A custody expert who interviews the parties would want to see exactly the psychological state of each of the potential litigant; they expect want to see somebody who is calm, well-reasoned, and able to care for a child.  

Use of Experts in Custody Evaluation

The use of an expert is critical in any custody evaluation. The expert will access the best interest of the children and whether any mental health issue of either party negatively impacts the children. Experts focus in great part on behaviors; the goal in a custody case is to always serve the children’s best interests.

When there are mental health issues, protections can be put in place limiting the time that the parties spend with the children, such as requiring supervision, updates and reviews, therapy, family counseling, the appointment of a guardian ad litem, and investigations and reports to the Court. Sometimes, a parent coordinator is used to help manage disputes between the parties as well.

No one wants a child harmed. A full-blown custody trial may involve in addition to the testimony of the parties, the use of multiple experts, collaterals, a guardian ad litem an attorney for the child, the involvement of DCP&P in New Jersey, the police, and DV hearings. When situations are exacerbated by mental health issues, problems occur.

The experts want to determine whether a child is safe and whether the situation is truly good for a child.

Courts can assess the situation and take steps to be sure children are protected if alcohol or drug issues are exhibiting, a party is acting out, is overly hard on the children, or if there is violence, etc. Sometimes clients and counsel agree with the Court and other times, they may feel the Court is over or under reacting to the situation and a trial may be necessary.

The Role of Counseling

A party who has mental health issues in all likelihood benefits from obtaining counseling to help work through issues in the best possible way, so the children’s best interests are served.  

Parenting can be very difficult to begin with and if a parent is facing mental health challenges, the therapist or coach can be very helpful and on occasion can serve to alleviate some of the problems. A parenting coach can provide guidance on how to deal with stressful situations.

Mental health issues can occur at any time. A party can bring mental health concerns to the attention of the Court at any time until the children are emancipated. There is never a final Order in a custody case. In New Jersey, if there is a change of circumstances, either party can request the Court’s involvement to help address problematic behavior and to enter Orders that protect the children. The Court stands in a position of parents patriate.  

Impact on Children’s Mental Health

Mental health issues are everywhere. Parents need to be particularly careful that their mental health issues don’t become problems for their children. Children almost always find their parents’ divorce to be stressful. If a child has mental health issues, the divorce can exacerbate these problems. It is important to provide therapy to children who need it. Children must be monitored more closely during the proceeding. Parents must do their best to communicate with each other regarding the children, if necessary, with the involvement of an expert. If a child is having issues at a parent’s home that information needs to be shared with the other parent. Such information sharing can be made more difficult when the parties are not in agreement on custody. The child’s best interests supersede all else and helping the child must come first. Treatment plans must be agreed upon unless one parent has been awarded sole custody. It is vital that parents obtain help with decision making as necessary.