A proposed state law intended to protect children from parents with serious substance abuse problems may actually have the unintended consequence of causing addicts to refrain from getting treatment.
Our Birmingham child custody lawyers know that addiction is a disease, and relapse is a common part of recovery.
Legislators who drafted Alabama HB 236 clearly have good intentions, but they may actually make the problem worse.
Introduced mid-February by Rep. Wes Long, R-Guntersville and two other Republican lawmakers, the bill would make it so that a parent would lose custody of his child if he had received alcohol or drug abuse treatment two times or more over the course of five years and then relapsed. Essentially, it is a three-strikes proposal for parents who are battling addiction.
The measure would be an amendment to existing state law, Sections 12-15-201 and 12-15-319, Code of Alabama, which addresses termination of parental rights. As it stands, there are about a dozen circumstances under which parental rights in Alabama could be terminated. Those are:
- Emotional or mental illness, mental deficiency or "excessive use of alcohol or controlled substances, of a duration or nature as to render the parent unable to care for needs of child";
- Abuse or maltreatment;
- Conviction of and imprisonment for any felony crime;
- Commission of a parent in committing or aiding murder or felonious assault of another child;
- Involuntary termination of parental rights of a sibling;
- Failure to pay child support;
- Failure to maintain regular contact with the child;
- Lack of effort by parents to adjust his or circumstances to meet the needs of the child.
First of all, you can see that a number of these guidelines are quite broad. There is a reason for that, which is to give the judge and others involved a fair amount of discretion in these cases, with the recognition that family matters are rarely black-and-white.
Secondly, the issue of severe substance abuse is already addressed. House Bill 236 would be an addition, creating an arbitrary measurement of parental capability.
Under the bill, treatment would not only include actual admittance to a rehabilitation program. It would also include attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, as well as those organized by church support groups. This is especially troubling because one of the guiding principals of AA is the premise that attendance is anonymous. If suddenly it could be used against a person in family court, there is an incentive NOT to get help.
How does that heal families and make lives better for children?
Some have suggested editing the measure to only include abuse of controlled substances, not alcohol. But who is to say that marijuana abuse is more disturbing to a family than alcoholism?
Others have questioned whether the state even has enough resources within the foster care system to take on what would inevitably be a glut of children removed from their homes with the passage of this bill.
The bill's sponsors have said it would be "an option, not a mandate." Still, it's a scary prospect for parents who have ever struggled in this regard.
Even doctors and therapists who work directly with those who are substance abusers say the focus should not be on child custody, but rather investing in more treatment options in the hopes of finding an approach that will finally work for each individual.
If you are dealing with child custody issues in Birmingham, contact Birmingham Family Law Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.
If twice treated for addiction, relapse could cost parents custody, Feb. 27, 2013, By Challen Stephens, AL.com