The Role of Mental Health in Child Custody in Florida

The Role of Mental Health in Child Custody in FloridaDivorce is a stressful process. People facing divorce must cope with the fact that a marriage that they have invested a great deal of time and energy in is coming to an end. This can take a toll on a person’s emotions, and many times people experiencing divorce may need the help of a licensed medical professional to help them find ways to cope with the divorce process. In other words, divorce can take its toll on a person’s mental health. This is especially true in situations where a person that has existing mental health issues is facing divorce.

Today, some of the past stigmas that existed surrounding mental health have begun to fade and people are less reluctant to seek assistance with mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. However, seeking assistance for mental health issues is still a difficult process for most people and it comes with many questions about the impact such assistance may have on a person’s life. Experiencing issues with mental health can be especially concerning for someone going through the divorce process, particularly when children are also involved in the divorce process. Many people may wonder whether or not certain mental health issues will impact their parenting time when a Florida court makes a custody determination.

Mental Health and Child Custody

There is no absolute answer as to whether or not a mental health disorder as diagnosed by a mental health professional will impact a parent’s custody. Instead, such disorders are factors that a court may use in determining whether or not child custody should be impacted by the existence of a mental health disorder. Florida courts determine custody arrangements, called time-sharing in Florida, based on what the court believes to be in the best interests of the child. To that end, Florida law does allow courts to consider both the “mental and physical health of the parents” when determining a child custody arrangement or if the court has been asked to modify such an arrangement. This does not automatically mean that a mental health disability will disqualify a parent from having full or equal custody, but only that such mental health diagnoses can be taken into consideration when a court is determining what kind of custody arrangement is in the best interest of the child.

Predictive Analytics and Predictive Neglect

Florida’s Department of Children and Families was one of the first states in the country to utilize predictive analytics in relation to child welfare. Predictive analytics are risk-based assessments of child welfare based on a number of different factors that the state has found may have an impact on a child’s welfare when that child is in someone’s custody. The basis of the process is a five-year child fatality study that compiled information related to the death of children in Florida due to abuse or neglect in order to use that information as a way to assess risk moving forward. In other words, where a specific characteristic – such as a violent background stemming from a specific type of crime – was seen in a large percentage of previous fatalities, investigators can flag that characteristic in a custody situation and determine whether or not the existence of that same characteristic or track record should impede a person from having custody of their child.

Typically, predictive analytics comes into play when an investigation into potential child neglect is opened. Investigators can cross-reference the type of alleged neglect with other similar types of neglect in the database, and can use the similarities to determine whether or not mental health disabilities are likely to play a role in predicting whether or not a child might be neglected or further harmed. In a child custody situation, if no current or prior neglect investigations exist, the use of predictive analytics likely would not arise unless one spouse questioned the other spouse’s ability to care for the child due to a mental health disability. The court may find reason to request a predictive study be done to ensure that the child would not be in danger were that child placed solely or even partially in the custody of a parent with a mental health disability.

Expert Witnesses and Other Considerations

If you or your spouse has visited a psychotherapist or other protected mental health provider, their relationship with you or your spouse is confidential. Florida courts recognize this confidentiality, and will not require the mental health provider to testify against their client nor will they necessarily be obligated to turn over notes from therapy sessions. The only exception to this rule is when a “calamitous event” occurs during the child custody proceeding, such as the spouse seeing the mental health provider demonstrating suicidal tendencies or being incapacitated by a mental illness for an extended period of time. If these events happened prior to the custody proceedings, it is not likely that the court will allow their admission.

In some cases, a spouse may wish to call in a mental health expert witness. An expert witness is a witness who is an authority in their field of practice that tries to prove a client’s point to the court by providing a professional opinion in furtherance of that point. Under Florida law, an expert witness must meet three criteria in order to be allowed to testify. These are:

  • The testimony must be based on sufficient facts or data;
  • The testimony is the result of reliable principles and methods; and
  • The witness is qualified to express an opinion on this matter because they have applied these principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Basically, this means that the potential expert witness must be appropriately qualified to provide opinion on a topic that is directly related to the potential outcome of the proceedings. A psychotherapist just out of medical school or who has never treated you directly may not be a good choice for an expert witness because they may not meet the qualifications necessary to be considered one. Either spouse is able to bring in an expert witness to prove a specific contention.

Assistance with Child Custody

Child custody is an extremely important and complex matter. If you are considering divorce or have questions about a current child custody arrangement, you should speak with a family law attorney that has experience handling child custody issues in Florida. Scott J. Stadler has worked with numerous clients in all stages of the divorce process, including child custody. Contact Scott J. Stadler to schedule a consultation about your divorce or child custody questions.