WASHINGTON, July 8 Mikayla Bailey Null ran up against her state's discriminatory child custody law when her daughter was wrested from her custody and she had to battle to get her back. To help parents who, like Null, have mental illnesses and who desperately hope, and deserve, to keep or regain custody of their children, the national UPenn Collaborative on Community Integration has launched an initiative to educate legislators around the country in order to challenge state laws and policies that discriminate against such parents. The Collaborative, a national rehabilitation research and training center devoted to promoting community integration for individuals with psychiatric disabilities, is especially targeting state laws that list a mental illness as one of the grounds for not providing "reasonable efforts" to reunify a family: in Alaska, Arizona, California, and Kentucky, as well as in Puerto Rico.
Mikayla Bailey Null's story is a case in point. While on vacation, Null, an Arizonan, had a bad reaction to a medication she had taken. In an ensuing argument with her then-14-year-old daughter, she slapped the girl, who ran out of the cabin. Police arrived, put Null's daughter in foster care and arrested Null. "I was charged with felony child abuse and felony assault because of a slap on the face," she said. "I'm sorry I slapped my daughter but I'm certain that, if I had not had a diagnosis of mental illness, I would not have been charged so severely."
After the girl was released to the custody of Null and her husband, Arizona Child Protective Services made the unfounded assumption that Null posed a chronic threat to her daughter and initiated home visits, despite no evidence of past abuse. After Null asked to discontinue the visits because they so distressed her daughter, child welfare authorities showed up at the girl's school and took her back into foster care. "They put a note on my door," Null recalled. "I can't even describe the trauma of having to have supervised visitation with my daughter, whom I had adopted from another country because I wanted this child so badly." The girl, taken from a loving family and thrust into a group home, was also traumatized. "She didn't smile for over a year," Null recalled.
Null discovered that Arizona is among the states that list a parent's mental illness as grounds for not providing reasonable efforts to reunify a family. The relevant portion of Arizona state law (8-846) notes that "reunification services are not required" if the parent or guardian has "a mental illness or mental deficiency of such magnitude that . . . . the parent or guardian is unlikely to be capable of adequately caring for the child within twelve months after the date of the child's removal from the home."
The UPenn Collaborative is publicizing Null's story to educate legislators and the public about the impact of the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illnesses. The Collaborative's goals include changing or deleting language that discriminates against parents with mental illnesses in legislation and policies that determine when reasonable efforts to preserve or reunify the family are not required. "Such policies and legislation should use language that does not single out parents with mental illnesses," said UPenn Collaborative director Dr. Mark Salzer. "We also seek relief for these parents under the Americans with Disabilities Act." Dr. Salzer made it clear that under no circumstances is the Collaborative advocating that children be reunified with parents, with or without mental illnesses, who may pose a danger to them.
The Collaborative notes that there has been progress. For example, the Kansas statute, which previously included discriminatory language, was recently rewritten to include language stating that "[n]othing in this code shall be construed to permit discrimination on the basis of