How Does a Family Court Determine If a Parent Is Unfit?

One of the most important things to remember about any custody hearing or proceeding is that the court has a duty to rule in the best interests of the children involved in a case. When a couple divorces, the division can manifest in the form of mistrust between the now ex-spouses and they may scrutinize each other’s ability to effectively and safely parent their children. In these cases, a court may order a professional evaluator to conduct an investigation to determine whether joint custody between the parents or sole custody to one parent would be the best option for the parents’ children.

If the court deems one parent “unfit,” the other parent will likely receive custody. Some factors that a court may use to determine a person’s fitness as a parent include:

  • A history of child abuse. Any court will look unfavorably on a parent with a history of abusing his or her children. It is very difficult to overcome any type of child abuse charges when it comes to custody proceedings. If a parent has any type of past child abuse record, the court will likely only allow occasional visitation rights, if any.
  • A history of substance abuse. Parents who have struggled with addiction in the past will need to prove long-term sobriety and reliability to win any type of custody. A history of relapses could lead a judge to assume that the parent is unreliable and presents a danger to his or her children.
  • A history of domestic violence. A court evaluator will want to know whether a child has witnessed past abuse and will investigate all domestic violence claims very thoroughly.
  • The parent’s ability to make age-appropriate decisions for a child. The court will need to know that a parent possesses enough common sense to make responsible decisions for a child for things like curfew, friends, staying out of the house, work, religious activities, and media consumption.
  • The parent’s ability to communicate with a child. The court will want to know that a parent has a functional relationship with a child and that the parent can easily identify the child’s needs and changes in behavior.
  • Psychiatric concerns. If a parent has an unpredictable or aggressive mental health disorder, the court may determine this as a risk to children. A court evaluator will want to see proof of therapy, counseling, psychiatric prescriptions, and other aspects of the parent’s mental health care to determine suitability as a parent.
  • The parent’s living conditions. If one parent remains in the marital home and the other moves out, the court evaluator will need to assess the living situations of the children in both homes.
  • The child’s opinion. In some cases, the court may consider a child’s wishes in a custody case. This typically only applies to children over the age of 12 who can reasonably articulate their thoughts.
  • The parent’s work schedule. A parent who spends a lot of time working out of the area or who works odd or long hours may not be able to provide adequate supervision or spend enough time with a child. The court may want to see a willingness to relocate or change jobs to provide a more stable home life for the child.

If you are worried about your position as a parent before a custody case, a reliable family law attorney can be an invaluable asset. Your attorney will help you gather evidence to support your position and can help prove that you have moved beyond past transgressions. If your situation involves a mental illness or history of substance abuse, a divorce attorney can find expert witnesses who can testify as to your level of stability, recovery, and ability to function as a parent.