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. Alabama divorce lawyers work with people all the time that experience a great deal of confusion about the meaning of the term “unfit parent.”
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.
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.
In rare circumstances, a court will determine that even supervised visitation would be harmful to the child. If so, the court will order no visitation at that time. Should the parent make meaningful, lasting changes to their conduct in the future, they could request a modification of the child custody and visitation order.
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. Those proceedings happen separately, if at all.
Examples of Unfit Parent Behavior
Here are some types of conduct that will generally cause a parent to be considered unfit:
- 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
- Chronic drunkenness
Other situations tend to require the trial judge to exercise judgment after hearing the facts of the individual case. According to the Alabama State Bar, the judge must base the decision on the legal standard of what is in the best interest of the child.
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 take care of the children as well as they do, they might accuse the other parent of being unfit. However, disagreements about nutrition, appropriate clothing, and activities the children engage in when with the other parent are seldom grounds for parental fitness.
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 one unfit.
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Evaluating Custody Disputes
First, it’s important to understand the difference between physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives. According to the American Bar Association, legal custody refers to 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, like what to serve for dinner.
Depending on the circumstances, a court might determine that a parent can only exercise supervised visitation because of choices they’ve made. Still, that parent could have some input when it comes to making big decisions regarding the child. In other words, a court can award joint legal custody when one parent is considered an unfit parent for physical custody and visitation purposes.
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
- Providing a stable, safe, and nurturing home environment, including setting age-appropriate rules and limits
These are but 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.
Reach Out to Our Firm for Your Custody Needs
You can call our team at Charlotte Christian Law 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.
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