Working out issues of child custody during a divorce settlement or workout co-parenting situations after the divorce is final can often be an emotionally difficult situation, even in the best of circumstances. When a parent is convinced that their ex (or soon-to-ex) is unfit for child-raising, it can become even harder. What can you do if your ex is an unfit parent?
Who Is an Unfit Parent in California?
The state of California defines an unfit parent as one who “fails to provide proper care, guidance, and support.” Specific examples might be a parent who is abusive, either physical or verbally. A parent who has a substance abuse problem is likely to be seen as unfit.
Parents who lack the means to provide financial support or have shown a track record of very poor judgment may also find themselves deemed unfit by the court. Parents whose relationship with their children can be defined as “extremely hostile”, even if not abusive, may see their custody rights curtailed as a result.
The state of California will make all decisions regarding child custody based exclusively on what is deemed “the best interests of the child.” However, it is important to note that the state starts with the presumption that a child’s best interests are served by having both parents equally in their life. What this means is that the burden of proof will lie on the parent who believes the other is unfit, not vice-versa.
Examples of Unfit Parenting Disputes
To understand how a court may view a situation and the options parents have, let’s consider some hypothetical examples….
The unfit parent is abusive
The first question will be whether the abuse is physical or verbal. In cases of physical abuse, photos of a child’s bruises can be powerful evidence. If the child ever had to go to an emergency room, there will be a record of that. In cases of both physical and verbal abuse, testimony from outside sources may be necessary. Abuse is often more commonly known than most people who endure it (and inflict it) generally realize. Neighbors, teachers, coaches, and others may be aware and be prepared to testify.
The unfit parent has a substance abuse problem
These are often heartbreaking situations, but a child is certainly not safe being alone with a parent who abuses alcohol or drugs. Here again, more people outside the home may be aware of addiction than parents realize. Testimony can be brought forth. The addict may also have a left a paper trail of their problem. An example would be credit-card purchases at a liquor store or drinking establishment. Another example can be text messages sent at odd hours that make no sense.
The unfit parent shows poor judgment
This can be a tougher one, because parents often disagree on the best means of raising children. A court will not intervene because one parent is stricter and the other is more lenient. But a court can step in when very obvious age-inappropriate decisions are made.
Here’s an example of this distinction—one parent lets a child watch a movie that the other thinks is inappropriate. That’s probably a dispute the parents have to work out between themselves. But let’s say a father watches a very explicit and graphic movie with his 14-year-old daughter. Now we have a circumstance that—if it’s a pattern of behavior—might lead a court to intervene.
How A Court May Handle an Unfit Parent
It takes a very extreme case for a judge to completely cut off a parent from seeing their child. As noted above, there is a presumption that the best interests of the child are served by having both parents in their lives. Judges will make every effort to see how, even in cases of unfitness, both parents can still have contact with the child.
Supervised visitation is a prime example of this. The parent struggling with substance abuse might not be able to be trusted with the child for a weekend, but they can come in the presence of social worker. A parent who lacks financial means to properly support a child might not be able to handle joint physical custody responsibilities, but one weekend a month might be manageable. Judges aren’t looking for reasons to cut parents off. Judges are, however, mandated by law, to protect the child above all else.
Collaborative & Compassionate Legal Counsel
The Law Offices of James-Phillip V.M. Anderson sees it as our mandate to fight for the best interests of our client above all else. We will work with parents who believe the other is unfit, and advise them on the best way to go about proving it. Or, if a parent believes they are unjustly charged with unfitness, we’ll help them protect their relationship with their children.
Call today at (916) 282-7737 or contact us online to set up a consultation.