What Determines if a Parent Is Unfit for Custody?

What Determines if a Parent Is Unfit for Custody?One of the more challenging parts of the divorce process is the decision of child custody. Both parents generally want to spend as much time as possible with their child, or children, and the court takes a number of factors into consideration when making their determination on parenting time. In extreme cases, one parent may accuse the other of being unfit for custody. When this happens, the court will expect strong evidence.

In Maryland child custody cases, judges always prioritize the best interests of the child and their best interests only. The court won’t penalize a parent for being imperfect – they recognize that nobody’s perfect – but they will deny custody if they believe a parent’s actions are putting a child in harm’s way. Determining whether a parent is unfit for custody is at a judge’s discretion, but they will consider a variety of circumstances and factors.

Child abuse

If the other parent has a history of child abuse, either with the child in question or another child under their care, the court will look upon them extremely unfavorably. A parent with child abuse charges or an investigation on their record will not have a strong case for custody or visitation rights. Any history of visits from Maryland Child Protective Services (CPS) will likely work against the parent in a custody dispute.

Domestic violence

If a child has witnessed domestic violence or the effects of domestic violence, the court will also take that into consideration. Children must be provided a safe home, free from abuse and the threat of abuse – whether to them or another family member. Find out more about our protective and peace orders here.

Substance abuse

A parent with addiction issues must be able to show long-term sobriety before the court will make positive custody decisions. The parent’s alcohol and drug problems may pose safety and health risks to a child. Typically the court will order an assessment to determine the extent of the substance abuse.

Mental health issues

Having a mental health condition doesn’t preclude anyone from being a parent or sharing custody of a child. However, when that condition is untreated and becomes a risk to the child’s welfare, the court may take that into consideration – at least until the parent becomes better involved in their own psychiatric treatment and appropriate medication.

Ability to bond with the child

Does the parent have a functional relationship with the child? This means the ability to identify their needs, changes in behavior, and understand their best interests. The parent should be sensitive to their child’s needs and the child should be comfortable communicating those needs. Generally, a child should feel at ease in both parents’ company and homes.

Child’s wants and needs

In some cases, especially with older children, your child’s preference may come into play. Children old enough to make their own decisions can provide their input to the court. However, younger children may signal in other ways that a parent may be unfit for custody – acting out before visits, expressing fear about the other parent, etc. It is important to pay attention to your child if they are uncomfortable.


Does being an unfit parent terminate parental rights?

The Child Welfare Information Gateway also discusses the topic of unfit parents in an article about involuntary termination of parental rights. Although a parent can voluntarily terminate their parental rights, there are also times where the court can terminate them instead. Being declared an unfit parent can lead to termination of your parental rights – but not always.

According to the Child Welfare article, the most common grounds for terminating parental rights include:

  • “Severe or chronic abuse or neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abuse or neglect of other children in the household
  • Abandonment of the child
  • Long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent(s)
  • Long-term alcohol- or drug-induced incapacity of the parent(s)
  • Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
  • Involuntary termination of the rights of the parent to another child”

However, they also note that these factors become grounds to terminate parental rights only when the parent(s) fails to correct these conditions and/or behaviors.

The most important thing to remember during a child custody proceeding is that the court does not have a presumption toward either parent – only the best interest of the child. Proving a parent unfit is difficult, and a judge is unlikely to do so unless the evidence is solid. The court may appoint a child custody evaluator to get a full picture of the situation, observing parent and child interactions, interviewing both parents and child, and reviewing relevant documents.

In some cases, a child may be assigned a best interest attorney to ensure their needs are properly advocated for in court. Typically these issues only come into play during a high conflict divorce. If you find yourself in this situation, experienced and compassionate counsel can help.

The Bethesda family law attorneys at McCabe Russell, P.A. provide knowledgeable child custody and divorce representation. We advocate for the best interests of your child and the future of your family. Find out how we can help. Schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys by calling 443-812-1435 or reaching out to us through our contact form today. As well as Bethesda, we maintain offices in Fulton, Columbia, and Rockville.