Of primary importance to any court in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with regard to a custody matter is what is in the best interests of the child. While courts have broad latitude admitting into evidence a variety of facts and documents that may establish what is in a child's best interests there are factors that must be considered. For example, what happens when one party looks to obtain mental health records of the other party who is seeking custodial time and has a recognized mental health disorder?
In M.M. v. L.M. the Superior Court of Pennsylvania granted a father's appeal and overruled the trial court. Previously, the trial court ruled that the mother was entitled to the father's mental health records related to his brief, voluntary commitment into a psychiatric facility for his bipolar personality disorder.
In the underlying case, the father was seeking shared legal and physical custody of the parties' daughter. Understandably, the father's mental health was of serious concern to the trial court if it was to grant him any unsupervised custodial time with the young child. Weighed against that information, which the father objected to producing, was his right to privacy under the Mental Health Procedures Act. Under this act, one's mental health records are protected information.
On appeal, the superior court overruled the trial court, finding that it had improperly ordered the father to produce the records related to his mental health treatment. In overruling the trial court, the superior court stated:
The chilling effect associated with permitting one parent to intrude upon the other parent's confidential relationships with his or her mental health professionals compromises the child's best interests because the parent receiving mental health treatment will be less candid with the treating professionals.
While not requiring the father to turn the mental health records over to the mother, the superior court noted that less intrusive methods to determine the father's mental health status existed. Specifically, the mother could have requested a court-ordered psychological evaluation, the results of which would be available to the mother.
It is important to note that while the Mental Health Procedures Act strictly governs one's privacy interests to their mental health records, there is more than one way to "skin a cat." If faced with a situation where an opposing party's mental health status is a relevant issue to determine what is in a child's best interests a court should, upon request, compel a party whose mental health is legitimately in question to submit to an evaluation with a competent psychologist. The findings by the psychologist that are later reported to the court any finding may have an effect on the court's ultimate decision of how custodial time should be divided between parties.