Disabled Parents' Rights in Custody Battles

By Rob Jennings J.D.

Mother in wheelchair with arm around daughter (7-9) smiling

John Rowley/Photodisc/Getty Images

Child custody can become one of the most hotly contested issues in a couple's breakup. While the court's job in a child custody battle is rarely an easy one, a parent's disability can make it even more difficult. Although governments generally can't discriminate on the grounds of disability, the physical and mental capacities of both parents are highly relevant to a child's safety and well-being, and therefore a disability can play a part in a court's decision.

Child Custody in General

While child custody law varies among states, judges in all states now decide these cases under some version of the "best interests of the child" standard. Under this model, courts inquire into every aspect of a parent's life to arrive at a decision on what legal and physical custody arrangement will be best for the child. Depending on the criteria laid out by state law, your judge may, for example, examine your work hours, your parenting history, your criminal record and your behavior throughout the child's life. Because physical and mental capabilities may affect your ability to care for the child, your disability can figure importantly in the case. In child custody inquiries, the rights of the parents take a back seat to reaching an arrangement best calculated to keep the child happy, healthy and safe.

Physical Disability

Your physical disability may become relevant if it affects your ability to parent your child. For example, while you may be perfectly capable of caring for yourself, some physical impairments may affect your ability to pick up, carry or otherwise handle a small child. A parent who is bedridden may not be able to supervise the child adequately. Some medical conditions may--on a permanent or temporary basis--require you to take medication that affects your consciousness. While none of this means you're a bad or unfit parent, it may affect the child's well-being while under your care--and this will interest your judge.

Mental Disorders

Mental disorders can be more difficult to prove than physical disabilities, but they are no less important to deciding physical and legal custody. A parent who suffers periodic breaks from reality or manic episodes, for example, may create a dangerous or emotionally unhealthy environment for a child. Parents with cognitive impairments may find themselves poorly equipped to respond to a child's changing needs and to eliminate potential dangers. These same disorders may make it impossible or counterproductive for the parent to exercise appropriate decision-making.

Disabled Parents' Rights

Even if a court doesn't award you legal custody--that is, with decision-making authority with regard to your child--or physical custody, you still have rights. The judge can still award you whatever visitation your condition makes possible. Furthermore, you would typically receive frequent telephone contact, the right to attend school functions, and access to your child's school and medical records. Even if your condition makes it hard for you to win custody of your child, you can still typically play a major and positive role in his life, regardless of your disability.