How Does the Court Decide if a Parent Is Unfit?
If you’re a parent, you probably agree that no parent is perfect. While we all make mistakes, we do the best we can to love and prioritize our children while setting a good example for them—even in life’s toughest seasons.
For parents who find themselves entangled in divorce proceedings, child custody can be a major point of contention and concern.
Rest assured that the judge doesn’t want to punish either parent, nor do they desire to select a “winner” to receive total control of your child. Rather, the court shares the same goal as you: to determine what is in your child’s best interests and ensure that caregivers will provide a safe, healthy, and loving environment for them to continue growing.
5 Reasons a Parent May Be Considered “Unfit”
Under California law, an unfit parent is defined as one who fails to provide proper guidance, care, and/or support to their child or a parent who endangers their child—knowingly or otherwise.
You don’t have to be a perfect parent to spend time with your kids. The judge won’t deny you that right if you’re doing the best you can. However, there are certain circumstances in which a coparent may be deemed unfit by the court, meaning that the parent is unlikely to receive custody.
When determining child custody during divorce proceedings, the court will make an effort to establish what is in the child’s best interests. The judge will likely consider the following:
- How sensitive is each parent to the child’s needs?
- Does the parent communicate with the child in a way the child can understand?
- Is the parent responsive to the child and their needs?
The court may also consider each parent’s personal track record and examine whether one parent relies on the other to do most (or all) of the parenting.
Keep reading to learn 5 reasons why the court may determine a coparent to be “unfit.”
#1. The parent fails to set age-appropriate restrictions.
Rule-setting may seem like Parenting 101, but it’s something the court will take into consideration during a child custody decision. The judge will likely evaluate whether each parent sets appropriate boundaries and restrictions.
For example, does a coparent allow their child to watch R-rated films or play M-rated video games? Do they have a set bedtime? Do teenage-aged children have a curfew or other boundaries in place to protect their safety and provide stability?
It’s okay for two parents to not agree entirely on what is age-appropriate; however, it’s necessary to have a basic foundation of rules in place to keep the child safe and healthy. If a parent regularly fails to set boundaries or enforce rules that are in the best interests of the child, the court may determine that the parent is unfit.
#2. The parent fails to handle conflict appropriately.
A parent who struggles to navigate and resolve conflict between themselves and their child may be considered an unfit parent. This also applies to the way the parent handles conflict between the child and others.
As human beings, our true colors tend to come out while under pressure. How a parent approaches and engages with their kid during conflict can speak volumes, as the inability to manage and resolve conflict can indicate a disconnect between parent and child.
Examining these behaviors between parent and child allows the court to reflect on the following:
- Does the parent have a functional relationship with their child?
- Can the parent identify their child’s needs and behavior changes?
It’s important for the child to feel understood and safe to the point where they are comfortable communicating. If a child feels misunderstood or unable to communicate with a parent, this may be a sign that the relationship isn’t benefitting the child’s health and wellbeing.
#3. The parent has a history of substance abuse.
Parents who have struggled with addiction in the past will likely be evaluated to assess their parenting capability. Those with a track record of substance abuse may be asked to provide evidence of long-term sobriety and relevant medical records, such as records from hospitals, therapists, rehabilitation facilities, or other inpatient/outpatient treatments.
If a parent has a history of relapses or struggles to stay clean, they may be deemed unfit, as substance abuse is considered a serious threat to a child’s safety and wellbeing.
#4. The parent can’t or doesn’t provide for the child’s needs.
There are some cases in which a parent can't or won't provide for a child's needs. This may include basic needs—such as food, water, shelter, medical expenses, and clothing—or other needs, such as a stable home life, school schedule, regular exercise, and a healthy diet.
A parent may be unable to support the child’s needs through no fault of their own, such as not being able to afford it due to a low-paying job or recent layoff. In other cases, the parent may actively choose not to provide for their child, such as someone who chooses to spend their earnings elsewhere instead of paying bills or putting food on the table.
Regardless of intentionality, failure to provide for a child can result in the parent being deemed unfit by the court.
#5. The parent fails to cooperate or compromise with the other parent.
It’s safe to assume that the court will examine interpersonal relations between a couple during a divorce. If one parent chooses to be nasty or immature during the legal proceedings, rest assured that the court will note the behavior.
Likewise, if a parent is unwilling to compromise or collaborate with their coparent in or out of the courtroom, the judge may determine the offender to be an unfit parent.
Communication, compromise, and collaboration are essential to any coparenting relationship, regardless of marital status. Even unmarried coparents must exercise healthy habits, maintain civility, and uphold mutual respect if they wish to raise their child in a healthy and safe environment.
#5. The parent abuses or has abused the child and/or the other parent.
This is one of the more obvious indications that a parent may be unfit to raise their child. The court will almost certainly investigate a prior history of abuse and/or domestic violence.
Assuming there is a pattern of abusive behavior or the judge has reason to suspect past or current child abuse, spousal abuse, or another form of domestic violence, the coparent at fault will likely be declared unfit.
If an immediate safety plan is needed, the court may intervene by issuing an emergency restraining order to protect your child’s safety.
Your Family Is Our Top Priority
Family disputes can be costly in more ways than one. From divorce to property division, family law battles can not only drain your finances; they can also be emotionally exhausting. If you’re undergoing a divorce or custody battle, it’s crucial to secure support from a strong legal team with unparalleled experience in family law.
With an exclusive focus on family law, Burch Shepard Family Law Group takes pride in combining passionate dedication and specialized knowledge to achieve real results for our clients. Our skilled divorce attorneys bring over 100 years of collective family law experience to the table and have a track record of success to prove it. You can rely on us to advocate for your best interests while doing everything in our power to protect your family from harm.
Concerned about child custody during a divorce? Our experienced divorce attorneys are here to prioritize your family’s best interests. Call (949) 565-4158 or contact us online today to schedule a consultation.