Amber Laslo with three of her children, from left, Alistair Mahon, 6, Amelia Trautman, 14 months, and Damian Trautman, 9.
By Daniel Malloy Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joelle Laslo has never slept on her pristine pink sheets, and an Easter basket sits untouched in her bedroom.
Amber Laslo, in the midst of a lengthy and contentious custody battle, has not brought her 4-year-old daughter home since April 6. On that night, Allegheny County sheriff's deputies removed the sleeping child and returned her to her father, Robert Laslo, after her mother defied a court order by keeping her past her mandated visitation time.
Ms. Laslo has since moved, and in her new house in Hampton she set aside a place for Joelle even though she did not know when she would see her daughter again.
Ms. Laslo talks openly about her past and why her custody battle has reached this point. Her own forearms bear some of the evidence: scars from where she cut herself with razor blades. She claims she hasn't hurt herself since October 2006, around the time of her divorce from Robert Laslo.
While her two boys play downstairs, Ms. Laslo, 30, discusses in quiet tones her struggle with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder that she said followed an abusive relationship a decade ago, during which she said she was raped.
Damian, 9, and Alistair, 6, say they miss their younger sister and seem wary of strange visitors. Amelia, barely a year old and able to take only a couple of steps at a time, is too young to know of her mother's pain or her siblings' fear.
Joelle is Ms. Laslo's only child with Mr. Laslo, 40, of Springdale Township.
He declined to speak in detail about their dispute, but he said he did fear for Joelle at times during their marriage.
"Due to the very nature of the mental illnesses involved," Mr. Laslo said. "And I'll leave it at that."
As in many other custody disputes, mental health issues lie at the core of the Laslo case, in which both parents have been diagnosed with mental illness, according to interviews and court testimony. And although judges and evaluators say mental illness does not disqualify a parent from keeping custody, it can be a severe handicap.
According to research compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Mental Health America, a higher proportion of parents with mental illness lose custody than parents without that diagnosis, and only one-third of children with a parent with severe mental illness are being raised by that parent.
Courts generally don't keep statistics on the number of custody cases in which mental illness is a factor. But Allegheny County Family Division Administrative Judge David N. Wecht said he has seen an increase in the number of custody litigants with mental illness since he took the bench in 2003.
Family courts handle these cases by ordering extensive mental health evaluations of the parents as part of an assessment of their parenting and backgrounds to provide judges with a framework to decide who is more suitable for custody.
Mental illness is only one factor used to determine an arrangement that is in a child's best interest -- the mission of every custody case.
"We just have to kind of look at everything and not just focus on the fact that the parent has a mental health diagnosis," said Allegheny County Family Division Judge Kim Berkeley Clark. "Is that parent a better parent? Maybe, maybe not."
A custody trial aims to answer that question, with the history of the relationship and the parents, often including testimony about their psychological health, presented in meticulous detail.
Problem pregnancy a factor
It began in the summer of 2004, when Amber Laslo, then Amber Mahon, left her then-husband for Mr. Laslo, who sang in the church choir she directed.
"Things deteriorated from the minute there was a ring on my finger," Ms. Laslo said.
Health problems kept Ms. Laslo bedridden during the pregnancy, and the Laslos said he left his job to stay with her. During that time, Ms. Laslo said, she became dependent on Mr. Laslo for everything, from food to bathing.
Ms. Laslo said her husband had a quick temper with her older children, so she sent them to live with her parents for a while. She said he was domineering with her as well.
Mr. Laslo has been diagnosed with a mild bipolar disorder, according to his attorney. He said he is being treated and his condition is under control.
Ms. Laslo said she hoped Joelle's birth, on June 3, 2005, would salve their marital wounds, but post-partum depression struck. Years earlier, before her first pregnancy, Ms. Laslo said she had battled suicidal thoughts. But once she was responsible for a life other than her own, she said, she never seriously considered suicide again.
In an interview and in court testimony, Ms. Laslo said Mr. Laslo tried to push her in that direction by describing ways she could kill herself and asking what type of funeral she would like. Mr. Laslo, in an interview, denied doing so.
Ms. Laslo said her response was to harm herself. She put Joelle to sleep before going into the bathroom and cutting her arms or stomach with razor blades. "It was a need to release some of that pain, to get in control of that pain myself," she said. "Somebody else hurting you hurts so much more."
On Oct. 26, 2006, as the Laslos were leaving a marital therapy session, Ms. Laslo was served with divorce and custody papers.
Ms. Laslo said she'd wanted to make the marriage work, mostly because of her fear of being alone and the shame of a second divorce. She said she was blindsided.
Encouraged to seek treatment
When a custody case is filed, parents meet first with a court mediator. Information gathered during that confidential process cannot be used at trial to try to reach an agreement.
If that doesn't work, the next stop is a conciliator -- court officials who have more power to negotiate enforceable agreements between the parents. An agreement reached at this stage becomes a signed court order.
In these early stages, parents with mental illness are encouraged to seek treatment because it will help them and help their case by showing a judge they are taking an active role in improving their health.
Allegheny County this year introduced two programs -- Children's Court Office of Human Services and IMPACT -- to offer litigating parents quicker access to county substance abuse or mental health programs by setting up shop in the family division courthouse Downtown, and taking referrals and walk-ups.
If a case remains unresolved after those stages, it can move to a hearing or be sent to a judge, who often orders an evaluation of both parents.
Every psychologist has a different method of evaluating the parties, but all interview both parents and try to observe them playing or interacting in some way with the child or children at stake in the case. If children are old enough, the psychologist also interviews them to obtain a more honest assessment than the parents are likely to offer.
"[Parents] want to win me over, so everyone exaggerates and half of them lie," said Mark King, a psychologist who often evaluates litigants in Allegheny County custody cases.
"People think psychologists are lie detectors, but we're not," said Dr. King. "So I love cases where the children are 8 or 9 and I can really talk to them."
These evaluators tend not to make a specific diagnosis about a parent's mental health -- that can come out at trial from a personal psychiatrist or another professional -- but their observations about how mental illnesses affect parenting can be crucial.
Shared custody recommended
The Laslos' case was filed and went to trial in February in Westmoreland County because they lived there when Mr. Laslo filed for divorce. They were evaluated by psychologist William E. Bush, who recommended shared custody of Joelle.
Dr. Bush testified that he had concerns about both parents' mental health. But he said he believed Ms. Laslo's mental health could deteriorate more quickly, and she needed more supervision and support from relatives and professionals.
He also said Joelle was doing reasonably well considering the circumstances.
Westmoreland County Family Court Judge Christopher A. Feliciani noted that both parents had a history of mental health issues when he determined that the Laslos would share custody of Joelle.
The judge's order also required them to be monitored by their parents. Both sets of grandparents were active in Joelle's care.
Mr. Laslo, who lives with his parents, was awarded primary custody. Ms. Laslo would have Joelle on weekends.
One paragraph of the order was underlined and printed in bold type, ordering both parents to remain in psychiatric treatment. The order also noted that the grandparents and Ms. Laslo's fiance -- Richard Rosul, the father of baby Amelia -- "have the duty to report any relapse or unusual behavior on the part of either parent."
The court-ordered compromise proved to be fragile.
In April, Ms. Laslo said Joelle told her she had been abused while staying with her father. Ms. Laslo filed a police report and sought an emergency protection from abuse order because she said she was scared for her daughter and wanted the matter investigated.
In an interview, Robert Laslo said he believed his ex-wife fabricated the account to win custody.
Joelle did not provide that information to a caseworker from the county Office of Children, Youth and Families who came to Ms. Laslo's home to follow up on her report. Ms. Laslo attempted to get another protective order on the morning of April 6 that would have allowed her to keep the child longer, but Allegheny County Judge Kathryn M. Hens-Greco denied her request and ordered that Joelle be returned to her father by 6 p.m.
"I didn't know how to protect my daughter," Ms. Laslo said.
She decided to defy the order and not return Joelle.
About 10 p.m., Ms. Laslo said, sheriff's deputies arrived to take away her sleeping daughter. The child woke up and started to cry.
Two days later, Mr. Laslo's attorney, Maegan Filo, presented an emergency petition in Westmoreland County Court, and Judge Feliciani suspended Joelle's visits with her mother. He later transferred the case to Allegheny County Court -- where the parties now live -- leaving Ms. Laslo unable to visit her daughter until a new hearing date was set.
"She does what she feels in her head, whether it is true or not," Ms. Filo said of Ms. Laslo. "Joelle has a right to have two parents who are both mentally stable, and if her mother is able to do that, then Joelle needs to be involved with that parent. But right now Joelle needs to be protected from somebody who can't demonstrate stability, mental health-wise."
Two weeks ago, Judge Hens-Greco gave permission for Ms. Laslo to visit her daughter for two hours every Wednesday and three hours every other Sunday.
Mother and daughter have now seen each other twice at the Parental Stress Center in East Liberty, where workers supervise and document visits.
Ms. Laslo, who stays home with her children and receives government assistance because of her mental health diagnoses, said she struggles to come up with $12.50 per hour to pay her required share of costs for those visits. She splits those costs with Mr. Laslo. She also bristles at being required to have someone to watch her at all times while she visits Joelle.
Ms. Laslo said the stress center, after a six-to-12-week term of visits, makes a recommendation to the court about future visitation. The outcome she seeks: primary custody for her, with supervised visits for Mr. Laslo.
"Do I know I'm a fool to hope for that? Yes, of course," she said.
For now, she'll settle for the brief visits, at which she is allowed to bring only one other family member at a time. Joelle was shy and withdrawn early in their first visit, but later opened up and was very affectionate, Ms. Laslo said. She and Joelle have a call-and-response that they repeat during their visits.
"When I'm not with you, where are you?" Ms. Laslo asks Joelle.