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What is an Unfit Parent?

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

Most parents meet their responsibilities with reasonable parenting practices; They raise their children without outside interference. But not everyone is fit to be a parent. Sometimes the state steps in to protect the life and health of the child.

When a parent is judged to be unfit, there are significant legal consequences. 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: when parents are fighting for child custody in court and when a parent has had a child removed from their care by social services. In both of these contexts, there is no one universal definition of "unfit parent." The term has a specific legal meaning that varies depending on the jurisdiction.

For instance, Nevada law defines an unfit parent as "any parent of a child who, by reason 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 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

Who Determines That a Parent is Unfit?

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

Child Custody: During a child custody case in family court, one parent may accuse the other of being unfit. The accusing parent would need to provide supporting evidence of unfitness in their court filings. The accused parent would then have an opportunity to dispute the accusations by providing their own evidence, affidavits, and testimony from character witnesses.

The judge could order that a professional evaluator conduct an investigation. If the parent wanted to retain custody, they would cooperate with the evaluator. The independent evaluator would not issue a ruling on parental fitness, per se, but would come back with findings and a recommendation for placement of the child.

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

Child Protective Services: 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 from a mandated reporter like a school teacher, a medical provider, or a counselor. It could even be a stranger who witnessed abuse of the child.

Police and CPS staff would arrive at the home and determine if there is a reason to remove the child. They may remove the child immediately. 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. The parent has a right to have an attorney with them at that hearing.

The purpose of such a hearing is to determine if the child is in need of care and protection. If a parent is judged to be unfit in this setting, the legal consequences could be termination of all parental rights.

Reasons a Parent Might be Unfit

When someone calls another person an "unfit parent" the image that generally comes to mind is abuse, but there are many ways a parent can be unfit:

  • Mental illness: Many children live with a parent with a mental illness, but when that illness prevents a parent from meeting the child's basic needs, the child is in danger. That parent could be judged unfit, at least temporarily.
  • 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.

Behaviors a Court Could Use to Find a Parent Unfit

Below are examples of behavior courts could use to find a parent unfit. Keep in mind that both parents are equally responsible for meeting all of 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.

  • 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 house that is dangerously overstuffed, with rodents and insect infestation and a lack of functional plumbing.
  • A depressed parent may prevent their child from going to school because they need the older child at home to care for younger children.

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 be living 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.

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.

There are many factors that judges consider when they look at what is in the best interest of a child. In the context of parental unfitness, they 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, whether there was drug or alcohol abuse, among other things.

Consequences of Being Declared an Unfit Parent

The court is required to intervene and protect children with an unfit parent. 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 custody
  • The transfer of custody to the other parent
  • Denial of or modification of visitation privileges
  • Termination of parental rights
  • If both parents are unfit, the child could be placed in foster care or even adopted by another party

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. These may be difficult changes and it can be difficult to navigate the CPS system. Sometimes cases flounder. An attorney can provide invaluable assistance, ensuring that requirements are reasonable and the parent isn't ignored.

If a parent has lost custody in a child custody case, that need not be the end of the line. There are things parents can do to improve their situation, themselves, and their relationship with their child.

With their child custody attorney, they can go back to court to ask for a modification of the child custody order. 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.

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

Whether you're facing accusations of being an unfit parent, or you are 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.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified child custody attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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