This column recently appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Untreated mental illness is one of the “big three” when it comes to child abuse and neglect cases.
We handle nearly 6,000 reports of abuse and neglect each year at Hamilton County Job and Family Services and we see three predominant factors in most cases: substance abuse, untreated mental illness and domestic violence.
Our workers on the front lines are responsible for regularly making life-and-death decisions on such cases.
Should a parent lose custody because they have an untreated mental illness? What if it can be controlled with medication? What if they stop taking that medication? What are the alternatives if the child is taken away? Is a child better off with their parent, or another family member, than they are in foster care?
Most people think mental illness happens to someone else, but an estimated 54 million people have a mental illness every year. The disease can hit anyone, regardless of age, gender, income or social status.
The fact a parent has a mental illness does not mean a child’s safety is at risk. What caused the mental illness? How does that mental illness affect behavior? What is the duration of the mental illness? How does it interfere with parenting? What is the age and stage of development of the child?
These are questions our workers ask themselves. They know an inconsistent and unpredictable family environment can result in a child being abused or neglected.
Moreover, if a parent is unable to properly parent, the child will experience their own developmental problems and possibly grow up with their own mental health issues.
But we must also balance our actions with those required by law and what we know as best practice. We are required to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent the unnecessary placement of children in foster care and provide services necessary to reunify children with their families. And, research shows children develop better when they have a connection to their biological family.
There are no easy decisions. There is probably nothing worse for a family than losing a child. When a child is hurt or dies, our caseworkers also have to live with the heartbreak of that traumatic outcome. Some never recover.
We do know our work is easier when the parent has a strong support system. Those who suspect a parent is suffering from an untreated mental illness should express their concern, reassure them that they are there to help and aid them in finding proper treatment. Educate those who are around the parent and children. Be a resource when the parent needs a break.
Most of all, if a child is at risk, call our child abuse reporting hotline, 241-KIDS.
We deal with 17,000 Hamilton County children a year and our number one goal is always the same: keep them safe.
We would love you to join us in that effort.