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Parents with mental illness more likely to have contact with Child Protective Services, study finds

Previous research shows that contact from Child Protective Services (CPS) can have significant, long-term implications for children and their parents. Children who are involved with the child welfare system have been shown to face poorer mental health, developmental and social outcomes. According to a new study published in Psychiatric Services from Temple’s Collaborative on Community Inclusion, adults with severe mental illnesses are estimated to be parents at almost the same rate as adults without a mental illness; however, parents with a mental illness are much more likely to have contact with CPS.

Scientific evidence suggests that adults with a severe mental illness are entirely capable of being a parent for a child. But according to Mark Salzer, director of the Temple Collaborative and a co-author on the study, people with severe mental illnesses are often discouraged from becoming parents, including by their own family or their medical providers. The idea that people with severe mental illnesses could be parents was shunned to such an extent that it might explain why there is little research on the topic. Salzer says this recent study is one of the few on the topic, and the most recent in about 20 years to compare rates of parenthood among adults with severe mental illnesses with the general population.

“Research on people with severe mental illnesses typically focuses on diagnostic, symptomatic and service use issues, and less commonly examines inclusion and participation, such as parenting,” says Salzer, whose center spearheads efforts to study how individuals with a severe mental illness can participate in meaningful social roles in everyday life.

“Sadly, there is still prejudice and discrimination about people with a severe mental illness being parents. Our center started to address parenting issues in 2003, and we have been at the forefront in the mental health community since then,” adds Salzer, whose co-authors on the study include Collaborative affiliates Katy Kaplan and Eugene Brusilovskiy as well as Penn State assistant professor Amber M. O'Shea, a former Collaborative researcher and graduate of the College of Education’s doctoral program.

The study’s other major finding is that parents with a severe mental illness reported having some contact or involvement with CPS at a rate nearly eight times higher than adults from the general population. Looking at just the population of parents who have had CPS contact—which helps control for environmental factors, like financial instability, that correlate with child welfare services interactions—parents with a severe mental illness still had contact with CPS at a higher rate than parents without a mental illness.

The study’s authors suggest that higher rates of CPS contact among parents with a severe and persistent mental illness may be in part due to prejudicial attitudes as well as environmental factors.

Salzer points out that having a severe mental illness correlates with higher rates of poverty, housing instability, and contact with mandated reporters in the course of receiving medical treatment. These factors, according to Salzer, could be the triggers of increased CPS contact, rather than the parent’s mental illness itself. “Mental illness may not be the primary culprit of CPS involvement,” says Salzer. “It is plausible that the increased contact is at least partly due to a greater exposure to poverty and other factors that are associated with greater CPS involvement for any family in the general population.”

Therefore, Salzer says that it is necessary to examine whether mental health biases influence reporting and CPS contact and also bolster support systems, like peer-to-peer counseling, that can help adults with a severe mental illnesses parent to their fullest ability.

“There are a smattering of programs around the country, but not nearly enough,” he notes.

— Tara W. Merrigan

Posted:  February 28, 2019