Can Courts Use the DSM to Decide Child Custody Matters?

Many Utah readers are familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also commonly known as the DSM. The reference has been widely used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental illness across the spectrum of known disorders. First published in 1952, the volume that some consider the ‘Bible’ of psychiatry is now in its fifth revision, and lists over 300 various disorders. The DSM has made recent headlines not only for its most recent revision, but due to the fact that it has played a role in a recent child custody dispute.

The child custody case centers on a dispute between a mother and father over the care and custody of their shared son. When the couple divorced, they reached a custody agreement giving them joint custody of the little boy. The mother, however, decided to approach a Utah court to ask that she be granted sole custody of her son.

Her reason for the requested change is the fact that her former husband now identifies himself as a woman. While he has not undergone any form of gender reassignment surgery, he chooses to move through society as a woman, even introducing himself by a female name. His former wife is now claiming that he is mentally ill, and therefore unfit to care for their child.

To bolster this claim, the mother attempted to use the DSM to suggest that her former husband suffers from Gender Identity Disorder. However, the court disagreed, and stated that there was no evidence to suggest that the father’s gender identity issues hindered his ability to parent. While this case upheld the father’s right to parent despite his desire to live as a woman, many in Utah and elsewhere fear that misapplication of the DSM in child custody disputes could wrongfully separate parents and children.

Source:, “Is the new ‘bible of psychiatry’ a weapon for the courts?” Matt Stroud, May 28, 2013

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