Child Custody and Mom’s Mental Health

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Reader’s Question

I will tell you in a nutshell, I’ve been divorced for 8 years and my ex-wife has custody of my two daughters, aged 15 and 17. She lives with a guy who is not very happy in his relationship with her or my daughters. Earlier this year, she attempted suicide with no success, the police were involved and she was hospitalized for two days, then released. My daughters are still living there. I want custody of them. I know it seems silly because of their age, but I don’t want them in that environment any longer, and nor do I want to continue to pay child support to someone to keep my kids in an unstable environment. When we first separated I was in a small one bedroom apartment, so the girls couldn’t stay with me, but now years later I am remarried and own a home. I don’t want to spend a pile of money to try to get custody and have it take years. Do you think I would stand a chance if there are documented papers to prove her mental state…isn’t that enough?

I don’t know where to turn because it is also causing tension in my current marriage; I don’t want to end up alone just because of her mental illness. Oh, and the girls say they would like to live with me but they are afraid if they do it will push their mom over the edge, so they don’t want to say anything to her.

I live in Ontario, Canada. Do you have any suggestions?

Psychologist’s Reply

Even in a nutshell, this is a very complicated situation. All child custody disputes are complicated. You did a great job of summarizing the different issues at stake, so let’s review them one by one.

First, to offer a new home to your daughters, you and your wife must be united. This is important not only for your marriage, but as a model of a healthy marriage for your daughters. I strongly recommend that you two get into couples counseling to discuss the issues. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you do have to present a United Parental Front to the girls. Your wife, I expect, will appreciate that you put her first on your list in this process.

Second, if your ex-wife contests your bid for custody (as she probably will since child support is involved), then the documents you have regarding her mental state will not be enough. The judge will look at her fitness to parent, not her mental health diagnosis. If the judge orders a parenting evaluation to determine if either of you is fit to parent, that evaluation alone will likely cost more than $6000.

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Given the age of the girls, have you considered helping them emancipate? Emancipated minors have the rights and responsibilities of adults. They need to prove that they can take care of themselves and not wind up on the welfare dole, otherwise the court will never allow it. You can help with that by providing room and board. The process is an excellent growth experience for teens even if it does not go through to fruition. It also puts the girls in control, which may be most helpful to them. What hurts kids most in such situations is feeling helpless. I recommend you find a therapist for them and put emancipation on the table for them to discuss. If they decide they want it, then they will know where to find you when it’s time to help.

If you do decide to go for the custody battle, then I advise you to find an experienced and assertive attorney who specializes in family law. To attempt this without an attorney is a fool’s errand.

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