If one parent engages in conduct that places the child’s health, safety, or welfare at risk, that parent could be considered an unfit parent under Alabama law. This definition may sound straightforward. However, if you have wondered how to prove an unfit parent in Alabama, we can tell you that the process is complex.
Some people mistakenly think that if one parent is a better choice for having custody of the child, the other parent is unfit. That assumption is untrue. Some behaviors are easy to characterize as unfit parent conduct, but other things will depend on the facts of the specific case.
Below, we explain the Alabama unfit parent laws, including unfit parent determinations in custody cases and termination of parental rights cases. Contact our office online or call (256) 859-7277 for a consultation today for advice on your case.
An Overview of the Concept of an Unfit Parent
Suppose the court finds a parent to be unfit during family law proceedings. In that case, that designation can impact the court’s decisions on factors like which parent gets custody and the terms and conditions of visitation. Sometimes, a court will order supervised visitation if the parent is unlikely to provide a safe environment for the child. The court would award sole custody to the parent who can provide a safe environment for the child.
In rare circumstances, a court will determine that even supervised visitation with the unfit parent would be harmful to the child. If so, the court will order no visitation with the potentially unsafe parent.
Should the parent make meaningful, lasting changes to their conduct after this determination, they could later request a modification of the child custody and visitation order. They will, however, need evidence of their changed behavior. Such evidence may include attendance at substance abuse treatment programs, parenting classes, or anger management classes.
Note that the court handling a divorce does not automatically terminate a person’s parental rights if they are found to be an unfit parent. In Alabama, termination of parental rights proceedings are separate from divorce proceedings. Plus, the standard to terminate parental rights is high. Courts do not make such decisions lightly.
Examples of Unfit Parent Behavior
You may wonder how to prove an unfit parent in court.
An Alabama court may consider a parent unfit if they engage in the following conduct:
- Child abuse;
- Child endangerment, such as leaving a young child home alone for long periods;
- Persistently engaging in criminal activity;
- Abandonment or desertion of the family;
- Domestic violence;
- Habitual use of drugs; and
- Chronic drunkenness.
This is not an exhaustive list. A court may consider that a parent engaging in other behaviors or actions may make them unfit for custody.
Even if the parent has engaged in some of the behavior listed above, a court must always make any custody or visitation decision based on whether it’s in the child’s best interests. Under Alabama law, however, there is a presumption that custody is not in the child’s best interest if, for example, the parent has committed family or domestic violence.
What “Unfit Parent” Does Not Mean
Parents often disagree about the best way to raise their children, even during marriage. The inherent awkwardness of the relationship during and after divorce can magnify this situation.
If one parent feels strongly that the other parent does not care for the children as well as they do, they might accuse the other parent of being unfit. However, parental disagreements about the child’s nutrition, appropriate clothing, and the child’s activities when they’re with the other parent are seldom grounds for a parental fitness determination.
Courts generally allow each parent to make the day-to-day decisions when the children are in their custody—one parent is not allowed to micromanage the other. Being less than perfect or doing things a little differently than the other parent does not necessarily make a parent unfit.
An experienced family attorney in Alabama can help you better understand your case’s parental fitness and custody issues. For a free legal consultation from our office, call (256) 859-7277 today.
Evaluating Custody Disputes
First, it’s important to understand that Alabama law divides custody into two pieces—physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives and spends their time.
Legal custody refers to which parent has decision-making authority on the substantial issues involved in raising a child, like religious upbringing, education, and medical care. Legal custody does not involve the routine choices a parent makes on a daily basis when the child is in their care, like what to serve for dinner.
Courts generally award joint custody to both parents. However, depending on the circumstances, a court might determine that it’s in the child’s best interest if a parent only has supervised visitation if they engaged in unsafe or violent behavior in the past. The court may still allow that parent to have input when it comes to making big decisions regarding the child’s life. In other words, a court can award joint legal custody but not award joint physical custody.
Factors That a Judge Will Consider
Factors the judge might consider in custody disputes include:
- Substance abuse by one or both parents, including alcohol, prescription medication, or other substances;
- A history of domestic violence, whether the children experienced physical harm or not;
- Mental health challenges of either parent and the parent’s compliance with treatment;
- How the parents interact, communicate with each other, keep the other parent notified of doctor; appointments and school or sporting events, and resolve disputes;
- Each parent’s history of taking care of the children, providing childcare, and being involved with the schools and healthcare of the children;
- The relationship of the children with each parent; and
- The ability of each parent to provide a stable, safe, and nurturing home environment, including setting age-appropriate rules and limits.
These are a few of the many factors the court uses when evaluating custody disputes. If you have concerns about custody proceedings in your case, a family law attorney can advocate for you and your children while guiding you through this process.
Alabama Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings
Parents generally have robust protections regarding their relationship with their children. However, under certain severe circumstances, a court may terminate the parental rights of one or both parents.
What Does Parental Rights Termination Mean?
In Alabama, when a court terminates parental rights, it means that a parent is no longer legally the child’s parent.
This means that the parent no longer has any right to:
- Get involved in the child’s life,
- Make decisions about the child’s well-being,
- Have custody or visitation,
- Develop a relationship with the child,
- Raise the child, or
- Support the child.
The parent’s name is also removed from the child’s birth certificate, and the child can be adopted.
Parents can voluntarily request to have their parental rights terminated. Or, another party can request the termination of parental rights for one or both parents. In any event, you must bring a specific case in family court for the termination of parental rights. Ultimately, a judge will decide whether to take this extreme action.
Who Can File a Termination of Parental Rights Case
Alabama law lists several parties who can file a termination of parental rights case.
- Another parent,
- The parent who wants to relinquish parental rights,
- A guardian,
- The child,
- The Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR), or
- Another child placement agency.
DHR typically gets involved in a case because of child abuse or neglect allegations.
The law requires DHR to file a termination case in the following circumstances:
- The child has been in foster care for 12 of the last 22 months;
- The parent abandons the child;
- The parent killed another one of their children;
- The parent attempted, aided, or helped someone kill one of their children; or
- The parent caused grave injury to the child, another of their children, or the child’s other parent.
There are some exceptions to this mandatory filing requirement. For example, if the child is in the care of a relative or filing is not in the child’s best interest, DHR does not have to file termination proceedings.
How a Court Decides Termination of Parental Rights Cases
First, a court will examine the grounds for the termination proceeding. Then, the court decides if termination is in the child’s best interest. This process is followed in both voluntary and involuntary termination cases.
Grounds for Terminating Parental Rights in Alabama
You can only bring a termination of parental rights case for concrete legal reasons.
The legal basis for a termination case includes the following:
- The parent’s mental illness, emotional illness, mental disability, or substance abuse issues prevent them from caring for the child;
- The parent killed, attempted to kill, aided, helped, or solicited someone else to kill one of their children;
- The parent tortured, abused, or inflicted grave injuries on the child, another child, or the child’s other parent;
- The parent failed to support the child; or
- The parent was unable to maintain contact with the child.
There are several other potential reasons for bringing a case for terminating parental rights. Whoever brings the case, however, must prove these grounds with clear and convincing evidence. This means that the evidence leads someone to believe that it’s highly likely that the grounds listed are true.
Best Interests of the Child
Even if there’s extensive evidence to prove one of the grounds above, a court will still independently decide if terminating parental rights is in the child’s best interest.
For example, a court may believe that the parent relationship still benefits the child or that DHR should take additional steps to engage the parent. Parents should note that a court won’t terminate parental rights simply because a parent doesn’t want to pay child support.
Reach Out to Our Firm for Your Custody Needs
Parental fitness, termination of parental rights, and custody disputes may feel terrifying to a parent. You need a compassionate and zealous advocate by your side throughout the process.
You can call our team at The Law Offices of Charlotte Christian and Associates today to discuss your situation. Whether you need a child custody attorney or have other family law concerns in Alabama, our lawyers are here to provide support.