When Do Courts Deem a Parent Unfit for Visitation or Custody?
Child custody is a stressful time in any parent’s life, whether it is part of a divorce proceeding or the result of separation. In a custody determination, most parents want as much time as they can get with their children. The court will always make a custody and visitation decision based on the child’s interests. When a parent is deemed unfit, they will likely be unable to have child custody rights.
The term “unfit parent” doesn’t refer to imperfect parenting. Instead, it’s a legal term that applies when a parent cannot provide safety and care for their child.
What Makes a Parent Unfit?
A parent that is deemed unfit has failed to provide the basic requirements of taking care of a child, including support, care, guidance, safety, and well-being.
The judge or the other parent may request a child custody evaluation to determine if one parent is unfit. This evaluation will determine if one or both parents is unfit to raise their child safely. Several factors make a parent unfit, including the following:
- Evidence or history of domestic violence or abuse – A parent accused of abuse will likely have all custody or visitation rights revoked if the family court sees significant proof of child abuse or similar behaviors from more than just the other parent’s word. Children should never face or see this behavior unfold to a parent or sibling.
- Substance misuse – The court may decide to restrict custody if one parent is found to have a substance use dependency that is impacting their child. This misuse may involve illegal drugs, alcohol, or prescription drugs.
- Lack of age-appropriate decisions and limitations – Though parents may not have the same views on what is age-appropriate, the court expects both parents to provide reasonable and responsible limits, including decisions such as what media is appropriate for kids to watch or read or when a teenager is expected home at night.
- Failure to respond to a child’s needs – Parents should be understanding, responsive, and communicative to a child’s needs and well-being. It’s important that parents and their children have a functional relationship and that parents take necessary steps when there is a disconnect.
- Low involvement in their child’s life – A parent can be considered unfit if they have been absent in their child’s life or relied on the other parent or other people to care for the child.
- Inability to co-parent effectively – Both parents need to work together when co-parenting and determining custody. It can be difficult, and disagreements don’t automatically make either parent unfit. However, one parent who consistently refuses to compromise or cooperate with the other parent to an unreasonable level may be considered an unfit parent.
- A negative relationship with the child – California courts will sometimes take the child’s opinion into consideration, especially those over the age of 14. A parent will likely be deemed unfit to gain custody if a child doesn’t wish to be with that parent, is uncomfortable around them, or is afraid of them. Even if the child is not old enough to give their opinion, the child’s relationship with each parent will be considered. The court prefers it when both parents create strong bonds with their children. A parent attempting to alienate their child from the other parent will impact the alienator parent’s custody rights.
- Lack of social function – Social development is important in a child’s growth. A parent who cannot provide their child with a healthy social life, or refuses to attend their child’s activities, can cause emotional harm.
- Mental or psychiatric illness – A parent’s mental health does not always impact custody determinations. The existing presence of mental illness only makes a parent unfit if the illness threatens a child’s safety or well-being. A parent who is seeking treatment is a positive influence on their child’s life.
The court looks at a child’s interests above anything else. The child’s interests determine how a custody order is affected if a parent is deemed unfit. The court may remove custody rights if a parent’s unfitness makes them unable to care for a child’s basic needs or creates a dangerous environment for their child. The court may instead assign limited or supervised visitation rights. In extreme circumstances, the court may deny both visitation and custody.
Q: What Do Judges Look for in Child Custody Cases in California?
A: The top priority of a family law judge is the child’s interests. Judges also prefer it when parents cooperate on a parenting plan, showing they can work together to benefit their child or children. When the court is tasked with creating a parenting plan, they will consider the following:
- The child’s age and health
- The relationship between each parent and the child
- Where a child has ties in the community and school
- Each parent’s ability to care for the child
Q: Can a Custodial Parent Deny Visitation in California?
A: In most cases, no. Both custodial and non-custodial parents have equal rights to spend time with their children. Refusing to let a parent with those rights see their children can be illegal. However, there are situations where a custodial parent can deny the other parent visitation. This includes if the court has terminated the other parent’s rights or if a restraining order is filed against the other parent.
Q: How Can a Parent Lose Visitation Rights in California?
A: A parent can lose visitation or custody rights for reasons including:
- Committing a crime or engaging in criminal activities.
- Committing child abuse, domestic violence, or neglect.
- Knowingly making false abuse allegations.
- Engaging in parental alienation.
- Violating custody or other court order.
- Being considered an unfit parent for another reason.
Q: What Are the Reasons for Emergency Custody in California?
A: Emergency custody is a court order made when a child’s immediate safety is threatened. Emergency custody may be granted in situations involving the following:
- Domestic violence
- Child abuse
- Child neglect
- A parent arrested for a serious crime
- A parent with a physical or mental health issue that is impacting the child’s well-being
- A known sex offender at the house the child lives
These are situations where a court is likely to allow immediate custody modification.
Protecting Your Child’s Interests
For strong legal advocacy, if your family needs legal representation to ensure your children’s interests are cared for, contact Bickford, Blado & Botros.
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