When Is A Parent Unfit For Custody?

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Whether a parent is struggling with drug addictions or is in prison, many factors leave children neglected, abandoned, and without proper care. In Arizona, child neglect and abandonment cases are common, with the law criminalizing these parental failures. While no parent is perfect, the law seeks to protect children from unfit parents who neglect their parental obligations and expose children to dangerous situations, including physical and sexual abuse.

However, besides the obvious abandonment scenarios involving absentee drug addicts or incarcerated parents, child neglect and abandonment can also arise in divorce proceedings as divorcing parents fight for custody. In such circumstances, one parent petitions the court to declare the other unfit for custody owing to instances of child neglect or abandonment.

Who is an Unfit Parent?

Parenting involves certain fundamental rights and responsibilities, and while most parents reasonably meet their responsibilities, some cannot provide proper care, guidance, and support for their children. Since a child depends entirely on their parent for survival, unmet parental obligations expose them to potentially dangerous situations. The child might have to live with emotional or physical scars for the rest of their life.

The state may consider a parent unfit if they lack the willingness and ability to protect the life and health of the child effectively. When the state, through the courts, declares a parent as unfit, the legal consequences may include termination of parental rights, including custody. Essentially, not everyone is fit to be a parent.

How Does the Court Determine a Parent is Unfit?

Whether it is in the context of divorcing parents fighting for child custody or child protective services taking over the custody of a child from an unfit parent, the court must be involved. However, how the court determines if a parent is unfit may differ depending on the circumstances or context.

Context 1: Child custody proceedings

In a child custody proceeding involving divorcing parents, one parent may petition the court to declare the other unfit. Typically, they accuse the other parent of failing to provide proper care, guidance, and support for the child. The court requires the accusing parent to provide evidence to support their accusations and the accused to provide evidence to dispute the same.

The judge can request a professional evaluator to investigate the ‘unfitness’ of the parent and present their findings and recommendations to the court. If the court deems the parent unfit, the judge may grant sole custody to the other parent or order supervised or no visitation for the unfit parent.

Context 2: Child protective services

In this case, an interested party or a stranger may report the parent to the police or child protective services regarding their parental unfitness. The reporting party could be a neighbor, a relative, a friend, a teacher, or a medical professional. While the police or social service can temporarily take the child away, the law requires a comprehensive investigation and a court hearing to determine whether the parent is unfit or not. In such court hearings, the parent has a right to attorney representation. If the court determines the parent is unfit or is unable to provide the child with proper care and protection, the judge can order the termination of all parental rights.

Contact an Arizona Family Law Attorney

Whether you are the one seeking to have the other parent declared unfit or are the parent fighting off these accusations, a family law attorney can help you. Besides helping you understand the law and what is at stake, a lawyer will help you fight to protect yourself and your child’s welfare. Despite the complex nature of the child custody process, our experienced and skilled Arizona family law attorneys at R.P.M. Law are committed to helping you navigate the process and get the outcome you want and deserve. Contact us for a free consultation and learn more about child custody and how the court determines a parent unfit.