Thursday, January 11, 2007

Anyone can be labeled anything by the state at anytime

Mentally ill woman wins in court

JEFFERSON CITY Even though the courts had ruled that Angela Williams' mental condition made her unfit to parent her son, she kept a bedroom for the absent child.

As her son grew older, she dismantled an unused crib and replaced it with an unused toddler bed. On Christmas and birthdays, she's never stopped buying toys.

"My life has been on hold waiting for Christopher, " she said.

On Tuesday, the state's highest court took a key step toward reuniting the mother and child, in what is considered a significant ruling for the rights of mentally ill parents.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Williams was unjustly denied parental rights based on an outdated mental evaluation of bipolar disorder.

The case had raised broad questions about mental illness, what it takes to be a fit parent, and how the system ought to regard parents whose mental health improves.

"I think it's a groundbreaking ruling nationally, because there are very few cases of this kind," said Jennifer Mathis, an attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Illness in Washington. The group, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, joined the case in support of the mother.

Williams, of Park Hills, lost custody of her 3-day-old child in 2003, based largely on a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Even her lawyer admits that the new mother likely was unable to care for the newborn, whose birth defects required additional care.

Since then, Williams has argued that her situation has improved, thanks to medication that she could not take during pregnancy.

But the courts wouldn't listen. Instead, they continued to rely on a 2003 evaluation, using it as grounds to terminate parental rights in 2005. Williams hasn't seen her son since.

"It was very frustrating, because a lot has changed about me," Williams said in a phone interview.

In Tuesday's ruling, the high court states that the mother was unjustly judged based on old information, even though there was no proof that she would currently pose a risk to her child.

"Without such evidence, mother's fundamental liberty interest in preserving the parent-child relationship is terminated on the basis of speculation, rather than verifiable facts," the ruling states.

Mathis said the ruling is significant because it cements the fact that those who are mentally ill can improve.

"Mental health status is not static," she said. "People recover."

Geoffrey Pratte, Williams' court-appointed lawyer, said the ruling has bearing not only on mentally ill parents, but others who lose parental rights based on old evaluations of their situations.

Equally significant, Pratte said, is a separate part of the ruling. In it, the high court dismissed claims that Williams should lose parental rights, in part, because she failed to bond with her son.

That claim was based on the fact that the child had sometimes cried for his foster parents during supervised visits with his mother.

Williams said it was difficult to bond with her son, given that her visits were limited to a small room with no toys.

"Christopher thought it was a punishment to be sent to that room," she said.

The Supreme Court sided with Williams, saying that because the child was taken as a baby, "it is almost a foregone conclusion" that the parental bond would be weak. The ruling urges courts to "take into account this reality when passing judgment upon the bond between parent and child."

One national foster care expert seized on that part of the ruling Tuesday, saying that it could set an important precedent for future cases in Missouri.

"The court wisely said, in effect, you can't undermine a parent-child relationship and then turn around and seek to terminate parental rights because of the very damage you caused," said Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Virginia.

The ruling restores Williams' standing in court. Now she must demonstrate that she can safely be reunited with her son.

Williams, who also has cerebral palsy, believes she can show she's capable of running a household. Though unemployed, Williams said she's able to support herself on a disability benefit. She's also counting on family and friends to help.

As she seeks reunification, Williams said she knows her son will likely regard her as a stranger. And she expects him to continue clinging to his foster parents.

"It's going to be a rough road, but he'll adjust," she said.

In the meantime, she said, his room is waiting.


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