What is an Unfit Parent?

In both contexts, there is no universal definition of "unfit parent." The term's specific legal meaning varies depending on your state's laws.

The unique relationship between a parent and a child comes with certain rights and responsibilities. After all, the parent is responsible for their dependent child's very life.

Most parents meet their responsibilities with reasonable parenting practices. This means that they raise their children without outside interference from government agencies. But not everyone is fit to be a parent. Sometimes, the state protects the child's health and well-being.

There are significant legal consequences when a parent is judged to be unfit. This article provides answers to the question "What is an unfit parent?" by exploring the following topics:

Definition of an Unfit Parent

The term "unfit parent" is usually heard in two contexts: 1) when parents are fighting for child custody in court and 2) when a parent has had a child removed from their care by child protective services. 

For instance, Nevada law defines an unfit parent as "any parent of a child who, because of the parent's fault or habit or conduct toward the child or other persons, fails to provide such child with proper care, guidance, and support."

Illinois law has an extensive list of examples of parental unfitness, including:

  • Abandonment, desertion, and neglect
  • Failure to maintain a reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility for the child's welfare
  • Extreme or repeated cruelty to the child or child abuse
  • Depravity, which Illinois law defines as criminal conviction for certain violent or serious crimes or having committed any three felonies, with the most recent being within the last five years

Under the Florida statute and in most states, unfit parents may have their parental rights terminated if they engage in serious acts of abuse, neglect, or abandonment toward their children.

Who Determines That a Parent is Unfit?

Let's examine two situations where a parent might be accused of being unfit: a child custody case and a child protective services case.

Child Custody Cases

During a child custody case in family court, one parent may accuse the other of being unfit. The accusing parent must provide supporting evidence of unfitness in their court filings. The accused parent could then dispute the accusations by showing evidence from persons who know the parent's relationship with the child. Records submitted via an affidavit of authenticity may be admitted in court; but it depends on your state's laws. Character evidence also may only be considered in certain situations. A licensed attorney in your state will be able to properly advise you on laws about evidence that may be presented.

The judge could order that a professional custody evaluator, mental health professional, or guardian ad litem conduct an investigation. While it is usually advisable for a parent seeking to retain custody to cooperate with the investigator, obtaining legal advice first is strongly recommended. The independent evaluator or guardian ad litem would not issue a ruling on parental fitness, per se. They would present their findings to the judge and recommend the placement of the child.

If the judge deems the parent unfit or the home environment unsafe, the judge could issue a custody decision granting sole custody to the other parent and supervised (or no) visitation for the unfit parent.

Child Protective Services Cases

A parent could be reported to the police or child protective services (CPS) for unfitness. The call could come from a neighbor, a friend, or a mandated reporter like a school teacher, a medical provider, or a counselor. It could even be a stranger who witnessed the abuse of the child.

Police and CPS staff would visit the child's home — announced or unannounced — and determine if there is a reason to remove the child. They may remove the child immediately if the child is in imminent danger. They would investigate, and then the Children's Court (or whatever court has jurisdiction in your state, perhaps a Juvenile Court) would hold an expedited hearing, typically within 72 hours. A parent may appear with legal counsel at the hearing, but whether the court will appoint an attorney for the parent is state-specific.

Such a hearing aims to determine if the child needs care and protection. If a parent is judged unfit in this setting, the legal consequences could be the termination of all parental rights. Parents are, in most cases alleging abuse, neglect, or unfitness, provided the opportunity to remedy the situation that led to the child being removed in the first place.

Reasons a Parent Might be Unfit

When someone calls another person an "unfit parent," the image that generally comes to mind is abuse or severe neglect. But whether a parent is "unfit" depends on the state's definition of unfit parents.

There are many ways a parent can be unfit:

  • Child abuse: Parents who engage in child abuse by causing harm to their child's physical and emotional well-being may be unfit for parental rights. Evidence of child abuse can be gathered through various means, including police reports, social media, and testimony from witnesses. Police reports may be used to document physical abuse, while social media may be used to demonstrate emotional or verbal abuse.
  • Mental illness: Many children live with a parent with a mental illness, but the child is in danger when that illness prevents a parent from meeting the child's basic needs. That parent could be judged unfit, at least temporarily. Where a parent is incapacitated due to a mental or physical medical condition, some states refer to this as a child being "without parental care."
  • Substance abuse: As with mental illness, many children live with parents with substance abuse and addiction problems. When that problem impairs their ability to provide for their child's needs, they could be deemed an unfit parent.
  • Neglect: Some parents get caught up in personal problems and fail to notice their child is hungry, unclean, skipping school, etc. A parent who neglects to provide their child with proper healthcare or medical treatment may be held liable for endangering the child's health and well-being.

Behaviors a Court Could Use to Find a Parent Unfit

Below are examples of behavior courts could use to find a parent unfit. Remember that both parents are equally responsible for meeting a child's needs and providing a safe living environment when the child is in their care. For example, courts and the law do not hold a mother more responsible for changing diapers than a father.

Examples of behavior that may lead to a court finding a parent unfit might be:

  • A parent with a history of substance abuse begins to miss child custody visits and has driven drunk with the child in the car.
  • A parent leaves an infant locked in a car or a toddler at home unattended.
  • A parent may have hoarding tendencies and live in a dangerously overstuffed house with rodents, insect infestation, and a lack of functional plumbing.
  • A depressed parent may prevent their child from attending school because they need the older child to care for younger children at home.

What is Considered an Unsafe Environment for Children?

An environment could be unsafe because of the presence of an unfit parent, or the environment itself could be unsafe. For example, the child may live in a house where drugs are used and sold. A parent may leave unsecured guns within reach of children. There may be no food in the home. Physical conditions may be unsanitary and unhealthy. Any conditions that threaten the child's life and health are unsafe for the child.

The Best Interests of the Child Standard

Regardless of a state's particular definition of parental unfitness, a decision about the parent-child relationship will ultimately be made by considering the best interests of the child. This is the standard for all decisions involving a child's well-being.

Judges consider many factors when they look at what is in the best interests of a child. In the context of parental unfitness, the court would consider the physical and mental health of the parents, their ability to provide a stable and safe home environment, whether there was abuse or domestic violence in the home, and whether there was drug or alcohol abuse, among other things.

The court might consider the criminal records of either parent, the parent's ability to care for the child, the child's feelings (if the child is old enough), and the welfare of the child. The court might also consider whether the parent engages in parental alienation, which can harm the child's well-being.

Consequences of Being Declared an Unfit Parent

The court must intervene and protect children from unfit parents. This aim surpasses the parent's right to have a relationship with their child. If the law considers you an unfit parent, the consequences could include:

  • Denial of joint custody or other custody rights
  • The transfer of custody to the child's other parent or a third party
  • Lack of involvement in the parenting plan and care of the child
  • Denial of or modification of visitation privileges
  • Denial of access to their child's medical records to protect their health and safety
  • If both parents are unfit, the child could be placed in foster care or adopted by another party.

Being declared unfit as a parent can have severe consequences and should not be taken lightly. If you are facing accusations of being unfit, you may want to consider contacting a law office as soon as possible.

How Can an Unfit Parent Regain Child Custody?

Although a child's right to safety is more important than the parental relationship, parental rights are fundamental and constitutionally protected. Any disruption to parental rights is taken seriously.

In a child protective services case, a parent will undergo an evaluation and will be told what they need to do to regain custody. Regaining parental rights is much more difficult than regaining custody. Loss of custody or parental rights is difficult, and it can be difficult to navigate the CPS system. Sometimes cases flounder. An attorney can provide invaluable assistance by ensuring that CPS requirements are reasonable and the parent's input isn't ignored.

If a parent has lost custody in a child custody case, this does not mean they must say goodbye forever. There are things parents can do to improve their situation, themselves, and their relationship with their child in the future. You should speak to a child custody lawyer if you are in this situation. You can go back to court to request a child custody order modification with your child custody attorney. A new child custody evaluation may be ordered. When the case goes to court, the parent can present new evidence in support of their request for a new custody arrangement or visitation rights. After considering evidence about a change of custody, the court will either grant or deny the parent's request for a change in custody or visitation.

Dealing with an Unfit Parent? Get Legal Help from an Attorney

A family law attorney can provide helpful legal advice to guide you through the legal process of regaining child custody. Whether you're facing accusations of being an unfit parent or trying to protect your child from an unfit parent, the best thing to do is to turn to an experienced family law attorney for help.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Both parents can seek custody of their children — with or without an attorney
  • An attorney can help get the custody and visitation agreement you want
  • An attorney will advocate for your rights as a parent

A lawyer can help protect your rights and your children's best interests. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child custody arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and provide for your children. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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