Case raises questions on courts handling of mentally ill parents
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Fausat Ogunbayo’s federal lawsuit seeking $900 trillion from the city for allegedly having placed her children in foster care unlawfully has provoked derisive commentary.
The stupidity of her monetary demand aside, however, the Staten Island woman’s nearly four-year battle with the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) does raise interesting questions about the applicability of child abuse and neglect laws to parents who are mentally ill.
It also brings into focus the right of accused parents to have their cases heard expeditiously by the Family Court.
Ms. Ogunbayo’s children, Joseph and Michael, then 12 and 10 years old, respectively, were taken from her by ACS on June 27, 2008 and placed in non-kinship foster care in Queens.
This following allegations that she was mentally ill, suffered from hallucinations and delusions, and refused treatment.
The city’s child protective agency also charged that Ms. Ogunbayo, a single parent, left the children unattended at home for long periods of time while she was at work in New Jersey.
At the conclusion of the fact-finding hearing, Family Court Judge Terrence J. McElrath found that both children were neglected, reasoning that because of Ms. Ogunbayo’s mental illness and her failure to acknowledge and seek treatment for it, they “were at risk of harm.”
Ms. Ogunbayo, representing herself, appealed to the Brooklyn-based Appellate Division, Second Department, one of the state’s four mid-level appellate courts.
In a memorandum decision handed down on Jan. 10, that court unanimously overturned McElrath’s order, dismissed the neglect charges against her, and ordered that the children be returned to her.
That, however, won’t occur for a while at least since a new neglect petition has been filed against her.
The justices began by holding that a parent’s mental illness, in and of itself, is not a basis for finding that her children are neglected.
They also found that “there was no evidence that [Ms. Ogunbayo’s] mental illness or delusional beliefs placed the children in imminent danger.”
In support of that conclusion, the court noted that her two boys did well in school, were current in their medical examinations and vaccinations and were physically fit.
The court did acknowledge that the children had told a caseworker that they had sometimes been left alone for lengthy periods of time while their mother was at work.
However, characterizing this evidence as “vague and contradictory,” the justices concluded that it did not amount to a lack of supervision that would constitute an imminent danger to the children’s well-being.
Without knowing all the facts and circumstances of Ms. Ogunbayo’s case, it’s impossible to offer an informed opinion on the soundness of the Appellate Division’s decision to dismiss the neglect charges against her.
At the same time, one can certainly take issue with the court’s blanket assertion that a parent’s mental illness, standing alone, is not sufficient to constitute neglect.
Factors such as the nature of the mental illness, the ages of the children and whether there is another adult in the home are all relevant in determining whether the parent’s condition, by itself, places the children in imminent danger.
Suppose, for instance, that a floridly psychotic single mother is the sole caretaker of a 6-month-old child.
The mere fact that the infant might be physically OK for the moment, or for the hour, or for the entire day does not lessen the continuing immediacy of the threat posed by her mother’s severely compromised mental condition.
Serious mental illness obviously requires treatment.
When a mother so afflicted refuses medical help, it either calls into question her judgment generally, including her ability to provide a minimally acceptable level of child care, or it reflects her inability to realize just how seriously ill she really is.
Both carry potentially serious implications for her children’s welfare.
The second issue raised by Ms. Ogunbayo’s case involves the manner in which the Family Court handled the neglect charges against her.
Although ACS removed the children from her in June 2008, a fact-finding hearing didn’t commence until 17 months later.
Then, after the hearing began, it took an additional 16 months and five interim adjournments to complete, even though, as the Appellate Division noted, the facts were straightforward and the testimony relatively brief.
In its decision, the appellate court appropriately chastised the Family Court for the “inordinate” amount of time it took to commence and complete the fact-finding hearing.
Any time the state seeks to interfere with the constitutional rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, the accused parents are entitled to an expeditious disposition of the allegations against them.
Even greater urgency is compelled where, as here, the children are held in foster care during the pendency of the proceeding.
Finally, the fact that Ogunbayo ultimately prevailed in the state court proceeding does not mean that she will secure a judgment in her favor in her federal court action.
Not only are the legal issues different, but ACS enjoys a qualified immunity that is difficult for plaintiffs to surmount.