Disputes over child custody can be among the most challenging parts of a divorce. In many cases, both parents want to spend as much time as possible with their children. In New York, courts decide custody matters based on what is in the child’s best interest. No parent is perfect, and some imperfections in parenting will not result in a parent losing his or her rights. However, courts do have the legal authority to declare a parent unfit. When the court declares a person unfit, it will reduce or limit interaction between the child and parent.

The Definition of an Unfit Parent

When a parent’s conduct fails to provide proper guidance, care, or support, the court can declare a parent to be unfit. Additionally, if substance abuse, abuse, or neglect, the court may deem the parents unfit. In most cases, after a court declares a parent unfit, Child Welfare Services typically become involved. There may be an open investigation or safety plan against the parent. 

During the divorce process, parents may not agree on child custody matters. One parent may not trust the other parent to have custody. A parent can request, or the judge can order a child custody evaluation to be held. The purpose of the child custody evaluation is to determine whether the child’s safety, health, and welfare are at risk. Evaluators will determine 10 factors when deciding to provide their opinion as to whether a parent is unfit. Ultimately, the court will decide.



1. Setting Age-Appropriate Limits


Parents do not always agree on what type of movies, songs, and other appropriate content for their children. However, when one parent allows children to watch extremely inappropriate content, this could be a red flag. Parents who share joint legal custody should make decisions about age-appropriate material together. When one parent does not set safe age-appropriate limits, this factor could indicate that the parent is unfit.



2. Understanding and Responding to the Child’s Needs


The evaluator will also consider whether the child feels cared for and heard by the parent. How sensitive is the parent to the child’s needs, and does the parent try to communicate with the child so that a child can understand? How responsive is the parent to the child’s needs and attempt to communicate?



3. History or Childcare Involvement


The evaluator will also consider whether the parent has a good track record of looking after the child’s welfare. If the parent has relied excessively on the co-parent to care for the child, he or she may not be able to provide for the child effectively. When a parent constantly relies on outside assistance from grandparents, friends, or other people, doing so could be a red flag that the parent is unfit.



4. Methods for Resolving Custody Conflicts With the Other Parent


Co-parenting is challenging, and there will always be disagreements between co-parents. However, if one parent is extremely divisive and refuses to communicate, this could be a sign that the parent should not have custody over the child. For example, if one parent constantly belittles the other parent or constantly argues in front of the children, the child will be negatively impacted.



5. Child Abuse


If one parent has a history of child abuse with this child or another child, the court may declare the parent unfit. For example, if Child Welfare Services has been involved with the parent frequently, it could signify that child custody needs to change. Child Welfare Services may have already and thoroughly investigated the issue. The court may decide to obtain an emergency custody order and further investigate and make a decision.



6. Domestic Violence


Similarly, if a parent has exposed a child to domestic violence, the court might declare the parent to be unfit. It is never okay for a child to witness or participate in domestic violence. If one parent has been emotionally or physically abusive to the other parent, the abusive parent is more likely to be declared unfit.



7. Substance Abuse


Many cases in which the court declares one parent unfit involve some type of substance abuse issues. If a parent has ongoing alcohol or drug problems, the other parent can petition the court to change the custody arrangement. The court might order a substance abuse assessment to determine the nature of the substance abuse and whether the child has been exposed to the substance.



8. Psychiatric Illness


If the parent suffers from a serious psychiatric illness that could harm the child’s welfare, the parent may be declared unfit. Remember that mental health challenges do not always result in one parent being declared unfit. However, if a parent is not receiving treatment for their mental health issues and the child is suffering, it will impact the case.



9. Social Functioning


The evaluator also considers the parent’s social functioning. If the parent is reclusive and stays inside all the time, refuses to speak to other people, and does not engage in other social activities with the child, it could hurt the child’s welfare.



10. Attitudes of the Child Toward the Parent


Finally, the evaluator will consider the child’s attitude towards the parents. If a child acts out before visiting one parent or expresses concern, it could signify that the child’s safety is at risk. 


Discuss Your Case With a Child Custody Lawyer in New York

Are you considered that you may be declared an unfit parent and lose custody of your child or children? If so, consider speaking to an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible. Attorney Jason Lutzky will work with you to advocate for a solution in the best interest of you and your children. Whether you have a new or existing child custody case, the Law Offices of Jason Lutzky is here to help. Contact us today to schedule your initial consultation.