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How Does a Family Court Determine If a Parent Is Unfit?

How Does a Family Court Determine If a Parent Is Unfit?

Generally speaking, New Jersey likes to leave parenting to parents. However, there are some situations – such as divorce, domestic abuse, or a child custody dispute – where a court or social services agency must intervene. Finding a parent unfit is one of the most extreme forms of intervention. 

Factors a Court Will Consider When Determining Parental Unfitness

Parental fitness refers to the ability and willingness of a parent to undertake the duties and responsibilities of parenting in a manner that enhances the child’s best interests. 

A court might find a parent unfit for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Abandonment: If a parent has abandoned the child, this is a clear sign that they may be unfit.
  • Abuse or neglect: Evidence of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse – or neglect of the child – is a strong indicator of parental unfitness.
  • “Common sense”: Does the parent possess enough “common sense” to decide issues like curfew, friends, work, religious activities, and media consumption?
  • Communication: Does the parent have a good relationship with the child? Can the parent identify the child’s needs?
  • Criminal conduct: A parent’s criminal record, especially if it includes violence or offenses that put the child at risk, can be used as evidence of unfitness.
  • History of domestic violence: New Jersey courts take any history of domestic abuse very seriously, even if the child was not the target of the abuse. Having committed domestic violence against a spouse could easily disqualify a parent, especially if the child witnessed it.
  • Incapacity to provide care: This can be due to financial, physical, or emotional limitations.
  • Lack of interest: A parent who shows no interest in the child or who fails to take advantage of visitation opportunities may be considered unfit.
  • Living conditions: The living conditions that the parent provides for the child will be examined. Unsanitary, dangerous, or otherwise inappropriate living conditions can be grounds for finding a parent unfit.
  • Mental health issues: Mental illness in itself is not a reason to declare a parent unfit. But if it affects their ability to care for the child or puts the child at risk, it will be considered.
  • Substance abuse: If a parent has a history of alcohol or drug abuse that impairs their ability to care for the child, this can be a factor in determining unfitness.
  • The parent’s work schedule: If the child is school age and the parent works a “graveyard shift” (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.), for example, the parent might lack the ability to properly take care of the child.

As the foregoing list should make clear, a court can declare a parent unfit without finding any moral shortcoming on the part of the parent (an incompatible work schedule, for example). 

Evidence That Can Be Used To Prove That a Parent is Unfit

In court, nothing matters unless you can prove it. And proof requires admissible evidence

Following is a list of some useful evidence for parental unfitness proceedings:

  • Testimony by expert witnesses: Psychologists, social workers, and other expert witnesses can provide testimony about the parent’s fitness.
  • The child’s testimony: Depending on the age and maturity of the child, courts may consider the child’s preference, although this is not a definitive factor
  • Records from law enforcement, child protective services, hospitals, or medical practitioners documenting instances of abuse or neglect
  • Substance abuse records: DUI/DWI records, rehabilitation records, etc.
  • Mental health records
  • Criminal records
  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Photographs, videos, or testimonies regarding the living conditions at the parent’s residence
  • Professional parenting assessments conducted by court-appointed experts
  • Financial records
  • The child’s educational and medical records
  • Records of prior involvement with Child Protective Services
  • Therapist or counselor reports
  • Parent’s communication and conduct (emails, texts, etc.)

All evidence must be admissible under the New Jersey Rules of Evidence

The Potential Consequences of a Finding of Parental Unfitness

A determination of unfitness with respect to a child could mean:

  • Loss of custody of the child (a certainty, at least temporarily and maybe permanently)
  • Loss of custody of other children, even without further evidence of abuse
  • The court can limit visitation or take it away completely
  • Termination of both parents’ rights (if both parents are found unfit) and perhaps adoption by someone else

If a court terminates parental rights for one or both parents, it might award custody to another family member, such as a grandparent. It is not easy to regain custody once a court has declared a parent unfit.

If You Think a Parent is Unfit, You Probably Need an Experienced Family Lawyer

In family law matters, it is best to act proactively. Contact a child custody lawyer to discuss your options as soon as you suspect that you might need one. The longer your lawyer has to prepare, the more familiar they will be with the intricacies of your case once things start moving.

To learn more and get the help you deserve, call our divorce & family law firm in Red Bank. NJ at (732) 747-1882 or contact us online today.
You can also visit our law firm at 157 Broad St #111, Red Bank, NJ 07701.

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