One of the most common issues I see in family court cases are parents who have PTSD either from traumatic events outside of court or induced by the court action itself that goes unrecognized and unsupported. This doesn’t have to be this way. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that people with a disability are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” both at work and in any court action.
How can reasonable accommodations help me?
People who have been diagnosed with PTSD often have difficulty thinking clearly and staying organized. They can also have trouble communicating through writing and are often misunderstood. One case I’m currently working on is a US Veteran whose writing style has alarmed opposing counsel and the court to such an extent that his visitation with his child has been stripped. But this father has never been accused of being a danger to his child and has passed several psych exams assuring the court he is not dangerous. But it still isn’t enough. People without disabilities do not understand how PTSD affects even the most basic skills like sending text messages and emails.
Instead of trying to understand that his PTSD is getting in the way of his ability to communicate effectively and that the court is causing much of the problem by refusing to acknowledge his disability or accommodate it anyway, the court has escalated the frustrating experience for this injured veteran which has increased his anxiety that causes more of the behavior the court does not like.
None of it had to happen. Recognizing that a person has PTSD and getting him the proper support would have avoided all of this veteran’s problems with the court. The ADA allows for anyone with a disability to have a support person in court with them. If you have a disability like PTSD you need someone to help you stay calm, focused, organized, and help get your evidence on the record. That person will also be able to explain to the litigant what is happening in a way that he or she can understand.
The current case I’m working on is a perfect example of how the court system discriminates against Americans with disabilities. The litigant has complied with three requests for psych evaluations through the VA and all three have come back with a diagnosis of PTSD and anxiety but no danger to anyone. Despite these findings, the court has put him on supervised visitation with his daughter. The court actors have not only refused to recognize that he is a person with a disability who is entitled to more accommodation-not less- they have also insisted that he get another psych evaluation by a court-appointed therapist that will cost him thousands of dollars and they continue to threaten to take his daughter away permanently increasing his anxiety.
This is clear discrimination against an injured US veteran. He has a right to use the government-approved therapist that is paid for and totally free to him through his benefits instead of being forced to pay for the court’s favored therapist who will give them the answer they are looking for and bring in thousands more to the coffers. He also has a right to parent without being discriminated against because of a disability that he sustained in the service of this nation.
How can I learn more about accommodations?
Every state health department should have an ADA office that can help connect you with such a person if you need one. What you need to know is that you are entitled to that help by law. A court cannot deny you the reasonable accommodation that you need and if they do, the Department of Justice can take away all their funding under Title II.
It is also important for you, if you suffer from PTSD, to have a diagnosis and be enrolled in regular, consistent therapy. This shows the court that you are treating your disability and you have experts to call on to testify on your behalf. People are afraid of PTSD. Most of them only know what they see in movies where PTSD sufferers are depicted as deranged and dangerous. They do not understand that a majority of people with PTSD are not dangerous at all but are easily confused, suffering from brain fog, forgetfulness, extreme anxiety, and the inability to communicate effectively- either with not enough exposition or too much exposition that confounds neurotypical people.
Who can help Americans with PTSD in court?
Malinda Sherwyn, a court watcher and ADA advocate, has worked with people with PTSD in the court system for years. “An ADA advocate sits with their client and they go through what they want the judge to know and they sit next to them through all court proceedings, on the phone with the lawyer-whatever they need.” Sherwyn says that one of the hardest things for a person with PTSD to do is comply with court procedures. “An ADA advocate will help the person realize when it is his turn to speak. You can’t talk over a judge. The support person is there to help the litigant understand when it is his turn and when it is not.”
Not understanding court procedure and talking out of turn can irreparably harm a litigant in the eyes of the court. It makes the judge think the litigant is incorrigible and it biases the court against him.
If you are a person with a disability in family court, please know that you have rights. Your local health department can give you more information on those rights and how you can make use of them. Courts are not allowed to discriminate against parents who are disabled but they do it every day.