If you are separating or getting divorced, most of the time, your child will spend some of his or her time with you and some with his or her other parent. In certain cases, however, one parent will be found unfit and full custody will go to the only fit parent. If you are in the situation where your ex is an unfit parent, there are some steps you need to take to keep your child safe while still following the law. Read on to find out what makes a parent unfit as well as what you can do if your ex is not able to properly care for your child.
Is Your Ex Actually an Unfit Parent?
First, it’s important to understand what makes a parent unfit. An unfit parent is one who cannot reasonably care for a child and keep him or her safe. This could be for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of them:
- Abuse. Either child abuse or domestic violence (spousal abuse) can make a parent unfit. If the abusive parent has unchecked visitation or custody of the child, the child might be a victim of their abuse. This can be true even if the parent abused his or her spouse and not the child in the past.
- Substance abuse. If one parent is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, this can make them unfit. They might try to care for the child while under the influence, not be able to provide a safe living space for the child, drive after using drugs or alcohol, use substances in front of the child, and so on. Going through a rehabilitation program can make it so they are fit to parent.
- Untreated mental illness. While many parents with mental health conditions are able to care for their children successfully, those who have severe mental illnesses that are not properly treated often cannot do so. They might not be able to take care of their own needs, much less a child’s.
- Extreme poverty. If a parent is not able to afford a safe place to live, enough food, electricity, and a way to get medical care for a child, they might be found unfit. Note that this can and should change once the parent is able to meet their child’s needs during visitation or custody stays.
- Mental disabilities. If one parent is mentally disabled, they might not be able to care for their child without assistance. In order to make it possible for them to spend time with their child, they would need to have another responsible adult with them.
- Inability or unwillingness to see the child. If a parent is incarcerated or has abandoned the child, they are often found unfit for custody.
Parenting Differences That Do Not Mean Either of You Is Unfit
Now that you know some of the reasons why a parent might be found unfit, it is important to consider some parenting differences that do not make a parent unfit. There will undoubtedly be things that your ex does that you do not agree with and vice versa. Children can usually adapt to different rules at different houses, so this does not have to be an issue.
For example, if you believe that your child needs to be 16 to start dating and your ex feels that 14 is a reasonable age, this is something that you will need to work out together. If you both decide that your respective rules will stand when the child is in each parent’s house, then that does not make either of you unfit. One parent might enforce an early bedtime while the other parent allows the child to stay up and hour or two later. One parent might use babysitters while the other only sends the child to be cared for by a grandparent. One might allow violent video games while the other does not. These are just examples of parenting differences that you will have to simply live with.
What to Do When Your Ex Really Is Unfit
If you feel that your ex really is an unfit parent, there are some steps that you should take. First, do whatever you need to do to keep your child safe. For example, if your ex has abused your child, call the police, press charges, and ask for an emergency and temporary restraining order while the court works out the custody arrangements. If your ex shows up for visitation obviously under the influence of a substance, do not allow your child to get in their car and instead call the police. Don’t be afraid to call the authorities when it is truly warranted.
Document all instances of behavior that suggests that your ex is unfit. You are going to need these notes later, so fill in all pertinent details. Take photographs and videos where possible. Also, if you have any police reports, keep those with your documentation. Also, if you can take your child to a doctor to have injuries treated or to a mental health professional for an evaluation, keep those notes, too.
You will need to fill out the appropriate custody modification form for your state and file them with the appropriate court. This will differ from state to state, so seek legal counsel from a legal resource group.
Options for Visitation and Custody
A judge will consider your motion and will look at all of the evidence. You might have requested an emergency hearing; in that case, a temporary judgment will be made. For example, you might be granted sole temporary custody of your child. Be aware that this is not necessarily going to match up with the permanent judgment, which will come later.
Your ex might lose custody on a temporary basis with the caveat that he or she must attend anger management classes, go through drug and alcohol rehabilitation, see a mental health professional for treatment of a mental health condition, or meet other requirements. In some cases, he or she will lose custody permanently. Supervised visitation might or might not be approved; it depends on the specifics of your case.
Keep in mind that your first priority will be to keep your child safe and meet his or her best interests. Working with the court will allow you to do that. In most cases, an effort will be made for the child to continue some sort of relationship with his or her other parent, but in others, it will be deemed dangerous or inappropriate for a relationship to continue. Talk to your legal advocate at National Family Solutions for help and guidance.