States typically do not track how many parental termination cases are related to mental illness, or how often parents have lost children based on a diagnosis. New York, one of the few states that does tally such cases, has about 200 parental terminations annually based on mental disability, a category that includes both mental illness and "mental retardation." If there were a similar rate nationally, that would amount to several thousand cases per year. The cases are typically sealed, and there's no way to know how many involve court overreach.
But if it's impossible to know how many parents lose children unnecessarily because of the stigma of mental illness, it's clear that the process for deciding such cases is deeply flawed.
Courts' decisions rest on the recommendations of evaluators who often do not observe parents at home or examine their actual record of parenting. Instead, they rely on psychological tests and case notes.
Incomplete evaluations are an "endemic problem," said Joanne Nicholson, who directed a unit that conducted parenting assessments for Massachusetts child welfare agencies and is one the country's leading researchers on parents with mental illness.