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Determining an Unfit Parent in 2023


No parent is perfect so little imperfections will not strip a parent of their rights, however, being an unfit parent will cause the court to reduce or limit the interaction between that parent and the child or children.

Custody disputes can be the most challenging part of a divorce or breakup.  Both parents will want as much time as possible with their child or children.

When determining custody the court will always make a decision on what is in the child’s best interest.

What exactly is an unfit parent in the eyes of the law?


The legal definition of an unfit parent is when the parent through their conduct fails to provide proper guidance, care, or support. Also, if there is abuse, neglect, or substance abuse issues, that parent will be deemed unfit.

Most cases where a parent is deemed unfit, Child Welfare Services has been involved and there may be a safety plan or an open active investigation against the parent.

During a divorce, parents might not agree on custody issues, or one parent might not trust the other with the children.

On the order of a judge or at the request of a parent, a child custody evaluation may be held. The purpose is to determine if allowing one or both parents custody is in the child’s best interest, or if the child’s health, safety, and welfare are at risk.

The evaluator will consider the following ten factors when making a determination.

Also Read: Legal Resources – Divorce >> 

1. Setting Age-Appropriate Limits

  • Is a 5 year old child allowed to watch R-rated movies on a regular basis?
  • What kind of curfew does the parent set for a teenager?

Parents will not always agree about what is age appropriate limitations, but when you have one parent who is allowing extreme situations, this may be a red flag.  When parents share joint legal custody, they should jointly make decisions about what is age appropriate but this does not include little things such as bed time.

This is when co-parenting comes into play and you have to trust your co-parent is making appropriate decisions in their household.

2. Understanding and Responding to the Child’s Needs

  • How sensitive is the parent to the child’s needs?
  • Does the parent try to communicate in a way the child can understand?
  • How responsive is the parent to the child?

A child needs to feel heard and cared for by both parents. Navigating two separate households is just as challenging for the child as it is for the parents.

It is important the child feels they can communicate the same regardless of which house they are at.  If there seems to be a disconnect, is a parent responding appropriate and obtaining help when it is necessary?

These are all important characteristics of a strong relationship.

3. History of Childcare Involvement

  • Does the parent have a good track record of looking after the child’s welfare?
  • Has the parent relied excessively on the other parent to take care of the child?

Both parents should have reliable childcare and all information should be shared.  Also, both parents should be able to take care of the child on their own without any help.  If they are constantly relying on assistance whether it be from the co-parent or from other family members, that may be a red flag that a change in custody is necessary.

4. Methods for Resolving the Custody Conflict with the Other Parent

  • How reasonable and cooperative has the parent been throughout the divorce?
  • Has the parent refused to compromise or communicate?

Co-parenting is hard! It takes a lot of work to have a positive relationship with your co-parent, but it does take two.  If one parent is constantly belittling the other or if every decision is an argument, your child will feel this.

A lack of positive decision making and working together can be a basis to change custody giving one parent the decision making power.

5. Child Abuse

  • Does the parent have a history of child abuse with this or any other child?
  • What is the current situation?

If Child Welfare Services has been involved in a parent’s household a lot, this could be a sign that custody needs to change.  Child Welfare Services may have done a thorough investigation into a household to make a determination on whether abuse or neglect should be substantiated or not.

If they have a concern they will issue an immediate safety plan which you can bring into court to obtain emergency custody orders.  Child Welfare Services Involvement is not always a sign as sometimes the case is closed without investigation, but it is an important sign to look out for.

6. Domestic Violence

  • Has the parent been physically or emotionally abusive to the other parent?
  • Has the child witnessed this?

It is never okay for a child to be a percipient witness to domestic violence.  It is also never okay for one parent to be abusive to the other parent.  You have resources available to you which include a domestic violence restraining order, counseling for the perpetrator, domestic violence classes, or just a change to the custody order to reduce interactions.

If you or a child are experiencing domestic violence or abuse, please visit our domestic abuse resources page to get more information about your rights, and how we can help you and/or your child >> 


7. Substance Abuse

  • Does the parent have issues with alcohol, illegal or prescription drugs?

If you have evidence that substance abuse issues of the parent is affecting the child, you can obtain a change in your custody order.

Even if it is a legal drug such as marijuana, the court can make orders restricting the parents use of the substance to ensure the safety of the child.  Substance abuse assessments can be ordered to find out the extent of the substance abuse.

8. Psychiatric Illness

  • Does the parent suffer from a psychiatric illness that might pose a risk to the welfare of the child?

Mental health issues does not automatically mean a reduction in time or custody, but it will be something the parent will need to show verification of treatment for.

If a parent is active in their mental health treatment and medication, that is a positive for everyone including the child.  However, if they are not treating their mental health issues this can be a very dangerous situation.

9. Social Functioning

  • Does the parent have any social issues that might negatively impact the child, such as staying indoors all the time and refusing to speak with neighbors?

It is important for the child to have social activities they do with both parents, it leads to positive interactions and memories.  If one parent is against activities or even attendance at their child’s activities, this can have a negative effect on the child.

10. Attitudes of the Child Toward the Parent

  • How does the child feel toward the parent?
  • Is the child comfortable with the parent?
  • Is the child afraid of the parent?

It is important for both parents to encourage and foster positive relations between the child and the parent, so it is important that the child is not encouraged to hate the other parent.

If a child is expressing concern or is acting out before visits, this can be a sign there may be a break in the relationship that needs to be fixed.  It is important to listen to the child and act when appropriate.

What Does A Child Custody Evaluator Do?

The evaluator appointed by the court may review court documents and health records, observe parent/child interactions, or interview parents, children, and involved professionals (i.e., teachers, doctors, etc.).

The evaluation will likely also include psychological testing of the parents to aide the evaluator in making a recommendation on what is in the best interest of the child.

When the evaluation is complete, the evaluator will prepare a report for the court in making their decision.  If either parent disagrees with the report, an opportunity will be provided to present objections to the court which may include testimony or evidence to the contrary.  This report is confidential; if you disclose the contents you could be fined, ordered to pay the other party’s attorneys’ fees, or both.

Also, the court may consider appointing minor’s counsel who will represent in the child in making sure the child’s voice is also heard in a high conflict custody case.

Coming up with evidence to prove an unfit parent may not be that difficult as we live in a digital age.  Parents can use photos, videos, and even comments on social media in court to help prove an unfit parent.

Watch The Video Version. Hear From Kathy Minella Directly On What Makes a Parent Unfit.


If you think you might lose custody, or you feel your children are unsafe with someone else, consider hiring an experienced family law attorney. They will work with you to find a solution that is in the best interest of your children.

Minella Law Group can help you with your child custody case, new or existing. Schedule a complimentary consultation today.

Join the discussion 36 Comments

  • says:

    Most Massachusetts residents understand that child custody cases involving two biological parents are determined based on the best interest of the child standard. The theory behind the best interest standard is that the law should focus on a child s needs, not on each parent s rights , where children are not property. Findings of parental unfitness are rare in traditional custody cases, because a court can simply assign primary custody to the better parent using the less rigorous best interest of the child standard, which does not require the court to find that the non-custodial parent is wholly unfit to care for a child.

    • Wanda Armstrong says:

      What are the laws in West Virginia pertaining to parental rights if a mother has children in Foster care in NYC? Does Children services in West Virginia automatically assume custody of her new baby? Does the hospital check a database for any other possible children she may have in the system?

  • Aaronwat says:

    I browsed through this site and there’s so much useful information, saved to my bookmarks

  • Alicia Geiger says:

    So do you help PA or no


    Yes i need help asap my son’s father i wanted to see if he is fit to keep my son from me

    • Emmanuel kayitare says:

      Hey Natasha thanks for the information, I wish my former attorney guided me through this , before they left me with debt . I would be better. How I wish I knew you first to hire you .

      But now am going pro se, due to no money to protect my child.

  • Man who cares. says:

    What does a single mother of 5, 1 3year old girl, 1 6 yr. old girl, 1 11 year old girl, 1 14 year old girl and 1 9 year old boy. All have great potential but but don’t care about anything. There house is completely thrashed despite the mothers attempts to clean. They seem to enjoy making there mom miserable. Mom has no resorses,family or vehicle. Just a dead beat dad. It’s ultra frustrating and I’ve tried for over a year to help or make some sort of difference. There is little to no information on this situation.

    • Kieran says:

      Can a judge upgrade an emergency residency appeal and reward full residency at his own accord

    • Trina M Barrios says:

      I am the grandmother of a child who was place in tempory custody of her father’s aunt she has the state closed it’s case my son originally agreed to do the tempory custody until his aunt had constantly threatened to take his daughter out of state she has used his daughter to extort money from him he offers to buy his daughter what she needs no she only wants money she comes up with excuses not to let them see they’re daughter he lives in Alabama he wants her to come live with me the dhr down there are bad had do u give temporary custody to someone not set of visitations and tell someone all they had to do is a nutrition class then they could have their daughter back and then close a case and leave it at that take someone’s kid for no reason four hours after they get home from the hospital for no reason at all and

  • Understanding DAD says:

    Man who cares. Think about this. She had 5 kids. Not 2 or three. She is not a person who makes good decisions. Children often take on the mindsets their parents have. So she herself has the mindset that she is passing on to her children. She is refusing to step up to the plate and be a parent to her own children. Children need lots of discipline. Obviously she is not capable of doing this. The deadbeat father is also in capable of doing this. In some cases this is because of a deadbeat mother who wants to play the victim. Men and women both must do their best to contribute to raising children properly. All you can do is be a good role model for the children to follow.

    • Marlena Parent says:

      It’s been almost a year sense my kids have seen their father. Reason for that is he over dosed on heroin and my kids found him almost dead. He’s now taking me to court for parenting time and custody. I fear for my kids life when they are around him. I feel he is an unfit parent and should have less possible supervised visits

      • Brittany says:

        It’s been 3 1/2 years since I got my son taken from me to his grandma. He has started calling her mommy cause she won’t let him see me besides every two months.

    • Monika Marx says:

      I suggest to all of you that you stop trying to judge others when you clearly are not very well educated. Man Who Cares…did you even graduate high school? Your incomplete sentences and grammatical/spelling errors are so bad, it is clear you are not qualified to have any kids.


        Isn’t your reply just a hypocritical judgment in itself? I’m sure in your eyes,most people aren’t as smart as you are or maybe they’re just a little more distraught and not worried about the spelling of the damn words their kids are at stake, are yours? leave the judgments for God.

  • Natalie says:

    Why are my children interview so many times and after a high court appointed a curator in litim for children in 2018? Because of an apparent appeal they did not obey the high court order?
    Know another curator was appointed and we need to see family advocate again and again is this normal?

    • Katrina Milburn says:

      I understand your fear. I am a recovering addict going on 18 years January 7th, way before I ever had children. I started working in the mental health field over 12 years ago. Things that will be important in your situation that you need to ask yourself first are; how long has/was the father an addict? is the father clean now? If so how long has he been clean and is he under the car of a mental health professional? How was the father’s behavior around the kids before when they were around him? Did your children ever witness him acting out making your children or you feel uncomfortable, fear, sad etc.? Does the father have a new partner in his life now? If so do you know anything about his partner or who he hangs out with? I’m asking because these are the people your children would be around. The court takes mental health very seriously especially when not treated by a professional. Addiction usually also comes with another mental health illness. I’d recommend having the court order him to get a mental health evaluation or psychological evaluation.

      I hope this helps and wish you and your children the best.

    • Monika Marx says:

      Natalie, if you want anyone in the court system to take you seriously, you’d better look up how to spell the terms you are trying to talk about. Know instead of now? Really? That won’t help you in court.

      • Michael Webber says:

        WOW if only we all could be as smart as you……..not ! I’m sure you probably mean well Monika, but most of the time if you can’t find something positive to say in a situation like this it’s best to say nothing

  • Socjologia says:

    Undoubtedly a wonderful written piece! Weve book marked it and mailed it out to pretty much all of my close friends simply because I know they are going to fascinated, thank you very much!

  • Jeremy t Wildasin says:

    I fought to prove my child was mine took a year got paternity and then nothing happen. I didnt no what to do and we just always got along. I have had my daughter most the time while they worked and stuff for 3 years now my ex took my baby and is hidden her from mer. I got her other kids to tell me that they were not allowed to let my daughter call me. What can I do its been a month siince i heard from my baby!!

    • Juju says:

      Open up an ex parte court , if you have custody already you should not have any problem getting your baby back! Good luck

  • Angela Ball says:

    I’m concerned about some children i know who are been left unattended while there Mum is working.

  • George holland says:

    I need a lawyer to call me

  • Caring Grandparents says:

    What do you do when you feel your grandchildren would benefit from living with a grandparent over either parent?
    Is there a temporary custody provided to the grandparent until the parent got their lives together?

    • Nikki Silvagni says:

      I am in the same situation with my grandkids. I don’t know who to call. I don’t want child welfare involved.

    • Lori Helen Lester says:

      I have same issue with my granddaughters. Mothrr has had Multiple relationships with abusive men. Had baby # 5 from another unemployed man met online whe married to #4. Last 3 after my son physically abused them. Mom did nothing but ay the victim. Now they blocked us from any contact. I am harassed by the new guy and their father. My son cannot get In contact with his daughters. CPS has been involved in the past and we witnessed the bruises and welts. They don’t do school like they should. She has them online. School prior had the other grandmother care for them due to them being under weight and failing g in school. No external friends. They live in Oregon. We are In WA state. Who can I go to for help. The mother will follow the men and abide by their rules. This man now believes he is their dad and cut all contact with the girls dad and us, the grandparents. Mother diagnosed as bi polar. Does not take medication. No annual checkups for the girls..list goes on. CPS wants to see blood to donating now

      • Kelli McAnulty says:

        I’m a single mother with a six year old daughter whom I have been the caretaker and mother of for her entire life yet I have a very urgent need for a lawyer as I have been harassed by two groups of people who are abusing me and my child which has been going on 24/7 & I’ve been using alcohol and other things to cope with the constant harassment and threats that my child can hear and they’re all watching me and my daughter with the entire town involved calling me a junkie piece of s#$t and making me look bad called cps because I thought they’d stop talking to us if I said I had schizophrenia I don’t and I called the police twice and every time I mess up they’re threatening me with cps, Police and making us move out. Apparently my entire family can see us somehow via the cameras in my house which I know sounds crazy but I am not insane but they are making everyone hate me so much I can’t even go outside without fear of going to jail whenever I smoke a cigarette!! They’re trying to build a case against me and have obtained illegally pictures and video Of my daughter and I which somehow is being shared with everyone in town and they’re calling me a junkie and yelling that and to f4&k off driving by whenever we’re outside. They’re ruining my reputation at 47 yrs old I started work at all get 12 & didn’t work under 30hrs a week until my 20s-30s when I worked 100hrs a week as a general manager of hotels and had the pleasure of working in the hospitality industry for over 30 years building a reputation from travelers to senators and many other groups of people who are also proud members of community groups such as the rotary club, Kiwanis and so forth by which I busted my ass and made a name for myself which is being tarnished, I may lose my child to cps tomorrow and then I have to fight for her to stay with me and my home is a prison in which they’re talking to us through the walls and because I screwed up in the past are using illegally obtained things to blackmail me with, they’ve also have my social security number and All my passwords and have cloned my phone. Please c ok contact me if you can serve as my attorney in the state of Maine. I’m being vague here, this case is going to court they’re trying to sue ME for slander which is $50,000 but I’m the one being harassed,threatened and talk about slander I live next to the freaking police station and they’re calling me a junkie piece of shit too and I’m really not I’m not what they saying but I didn’t defend myself so I may lose my child to everyone else who are mad at me for this and don’t care about what happens to me they believe these people who are constantly talking to me!! Please let me know if you have any lawyers in Maine. Thank you for your time and consideration. Warm regards, Kelli mcanulty

    • Torquilla says:

      I’m going through the same with my grandson. Mother had abuse grandson cause she said she was frustrated and pregnant and I have pictures of his bruises.

  • Howard Fuller says:

    I need to know my rights as a single unmarried father after the custody parents instantly death in a car accident . Can the custody parents , Mother get custody of my kids , The kids haven’t been Legitimation.. Ga

  • Jessica Goddard says:

    I need to talk to someone who can help me my boys were takn from me through dhhr and cps and the court terminated my rights mostly because i moved out of the state and a few other reasons they say and the dhhr offered services but there was a scheduling conflict with my work and so they closed services and told the court i didnt comply with the terms and i have very good reasons and when i asked for help u got nothing no communication just down graded my boys have never been away from me and i am worried they are gona think I give up

  • Yasmine says:

    My husband is a foreigner and he wants custody of the kids after divorce , he’s very irresponsible and abusive at a certain point , but he has a job and i dont , altho im self employed so i do make enough money to take of me and the kids …. could i still have custody of the kids

  • exFather says:

    After my divorce I was left in debt , homeless and lost my business. Although I was always the more involved parent, I lived for my kids, she was awarded custody, she doesn’t even LIKE children. I moved into my aunts basement and started working two fulltime jobs (I’ve paid every penny of awarded child support even when it was literally more than I made, borrowing from relatives to make up the difference.) While my ex was evidently already in a relationship before we got divorced (I didn’t know) I’ve pretty much given up on ever dating again. My life is work, more work and my kids. Sometimes I went hungry while paying her $1400 a week. She drives a $75,000 BMW and just bought her boyfriend a new truck.. I drive a 1997 saturn..

    After the courts lowered my child support payments to $1100 a week (it’s still more than I can afford hence the two jobs) she got angry with me and started arguing over everything. Telling the courts I was ” depressed” she started limiting my visits finally convincing them (she did apologize for the lies later but the damage was done) to only allow supervised visits with her mother or new “boyfriend” present because I was , depressed!!! Yes, she put me through hell and then used that as an excuse to try to leverage more money.

    Ruined my life then took my children away while she lives in the four bedroom house I was left by my grandparents. I still have her student loans on my credit. I was paying to see my children a few hours a week and now I have the HUMILIATION of being supervised by two people I don’t trust at all with ANY child.

    So I’ve given up, I told my children goodby forever last visit, I don’t intend to even try to see them again, they don’t understand, we all cried. My heart is broken. The humiliation of supervised visits was the last straw. I’ll keep paying child support but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve lost my children.

    She keeps calling me, I won’t answer. She also stopped by my aunts house a few times and I stayed in the basement.

    Is there any legal way to prevent her from contacting me again?

    • CJ says:

      So ,,,,, because things got real tough and humiliating for you, you walk away from your children????
      That sets such a bad example for your children.
      Child support is set based on the number of children and amount you make. Not more than 40% of income in most states.
      Soooo, get or keep one good job. Spend more time with your children, not less, supervised or not. You can file for a modification to any court order in place. Bring evidence of wrong doing against you. Show you’re capable of supporting and being with your children, without supervision.
      File a complaint with the police when your ex or anyone on her behalf harasses you. But you don’t walk away from your children…..

  • Katrina Milburn says:

    Too often I see loving, safe parents loosing custody or having to do supervised visitation paying to see their children. I found that having a vindictive, narcissistic ex can be very tough to fight in court as they can be good at lying and convincing others to believe whatever they say. They know how to make the other parent look bad. I’ve also noticed that too many unfit parents are getting custody over fit parents. I can’t seem to wrap my head around this. Is it about money? Control? Politics? The fit, loving parents usually continue to fight for their children, which equals more money for the entire system. While the unfit parent if not granted custody usually won’t continue to fight.

  • Alex says:

    Can I file for custody/child support before the child is born?

  • hailey Wooler says:

    So to make a long story short, I am having an issue with the father or my daugher. I wasnt an unfit parent, there was just alot of lies and i didnt know much of the legal system to know how to do anything, like research. He claimed i abandoned my daughter with her father for 3 months with no communication and sticks to his story for some reason, even with me having text and calls proof that that obviously didnt happen. Our case was closed with our daughter and the only thing i am able to do is take him back to court for custody because he is still causing problems when i pick up my daughter for my visits. i am at a loss because he had already called in emergency custody in the first casr and took her from me for over a year with the bare minimum of letting me see her. So i feel like if i were to take him to court id lose in the battle even though all i am wanting is a fair 50/50 where we both figure things out for our daughter because she is our daughter but i feel that the time apart from the first case is going to reflect negatively on my part even though it only stayed open on his end because he lied about what was and wasnt going on when she was with me or wasnt with me. Is there anything i can do really, any advice?

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