Planned Failure: California’s Denial of Reunification Services to Parents with Mental Disabilities


California’s use of mental disability as a proxy for permanent inability to parent safely lacks both practical and theoretical justification. The mental disability provision of the “reunification bypass” law allows the state to deny the normal twelve months of casework, visitation and social services to a parent whose child has been removed due to abuse or neglect when, in the opinion of two experts, the parent has a mental disability which renders her incapable of utilizing such services or parenting adequately in the near future. The reunification bypass law went into effect in 1986, and since then the courts have endorsed and expanded the law’s reach, while demonstrating either inability or unwillingness to meaningfully weigh the psychological evidence it requires. The statute places decisions of enormous legal significance almost entirely in the hands of mental health professionals, whose opinions may be based on inadequate information and erroneous assumptions. Consequently, the law may not benefit children and it labels parents as failures before they have had a chance to prove otherwise.

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