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Nassau County Family Law Blog

Sunday, September 6, 2015

What the Rosie O’Donnell Ordeal Teaches Us About Handling Mental Illness & Disability Within the Family

What are the options for families grappling with a difficult situation?

The headlines were ominous: "Rosie O’Donnell Contacts Police After Daughter Goes Missing." Thankfully, she was found just hours later due to the heroic and thorough efforts of New York police officers. Issues surrounding the child’s disappearance, however, were only just starting to unravel, prompting many to consider dynamics within their own families – and what to do to prevent a similar situation.

In the O'Donnell case, the missing person was still a child – just 17 years old. However, she suffered from a documented mental illness requiring the use of a support animal and a strict medication regimen. Because she is still a child, her parents maintain strict authority over her and can direct her life in a way that best meets her interests. It is important to consider, however, what might have become of  young Chelsea O’Donnell had this happened just one year later. As an adult, her parents would not have the same measure of control over her, and the outcome might have been much more tragic. 

In New York, parents of an adult child with special needs, a disability, a mental illness, or even substance abuse issues may be able to pursue an adult guardianship to help protect their child from certain dangers and hazards. Under Article 81 of New York’s Mental Hygiene Law, parents may be able to obtain a guardianship if two factors are met: (i) the adult child is unable to provide for personal needs or unable to manage property and financial affairs and (ii) the adult child is not aware of, or cannot appreciate, the consequences of such inability.

Once a petition is filed, the Family Court will consider a number of factors prior to awarding the guardianship. Namely, is a guardianship the least restrictive means available to help this person, or are there alternative remedies available in the community? The answer to this question will depend heavily on the proposed ward’s current condition – including any recent history of problematic behavior. From there, the Court will hold a hearing in which family members may be able to object to or support the guardianship. In addition, the proposed ward will have an opportunity to present his or her position.

If you are dealing with a difficult situation involving an adult child, please do not hesitate to contact Howard B. Leff. a highly skilled attorney with 35 years of experience in family law. Located in Garden City and serving the Long Island and greater New York City metropolitan  area, he can be reached at 516-739-7500.


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