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Clubhouse Family Legal Support Project History

Parents diagnosed with mental illness are at high risk of losing custody of and/or all contact with their children due to assumptions of unfit parenting grounded in stereotype. The ability of a person with mental illness to be a successful parent has more to do with available parenting resources and support and less to do with a diagnosis. The vast majority of children of parents with mental illness do relatively well with adequate family support and separation of children from parents can cause lasting emotional damage.

Many parents with mental illness lose access to their children without the benefit of counsel or judicial process. Lacking counsel, and under pressure from the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and/or other persons, parents with mental illness often relinquish significant parental rights. Clubhouse members have identified loss of contact with children as the primary barrier to successful rehabilitation as well as a significant source of distress for the entire family. Legal representation for these parents has not typically been provided by traditional legal services agencies or pro bono attorneys due to lack of resources and the difficult nature of these cases.

For the reasons described above, MHLAC established the Clubhouse Family Legal Support Project (CFLSP) in 1999 as a two-year project funded by the Massachusetts Bar Foundation (MBF) and Equal Justice Works, formerly known as the National Association of Public Interest Law (NAPIL). The initial grant brought a family law practitioner with solid legal services experience representing low income clients to join the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee and Employment Options, Inc. as the full-time project attorney.

For the past ten (10) years, the Project attorney, working with MHLAC legal advocates and EOI clinical staff, has provided effective legal representation to low income parents with mental illness in family law and some child welfare matters. Most recently, the Project added a new staff attorney to expand outreach and services throughout the Greater Boston Area. The CFLSP has demonstrated that the combination of experienced mental health lawyers and rehabilitation programs with a focus on parenting needs can have a positive impact on family preservation for some of the most vulnerable children and stigmatized parents in the state. The Project is now funded through the Department of Mental Health, and the Massachusetts Bar Foundation (MBF). This funding ensures the Project’s continual assistance to parents with mental illness in gaining or maintaining custody and/or establishing or increasing contact with their children.

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