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

A judge reviews all evidence presented by all interested parties to determine what is in the child’s best interest. The child’s best interest is the overriding concern for the court. If the judge determines that a parent is unfit, the judge may grant sole physical and legal custody to the other parent.

The judge may consider all relevant factors to determine if a parent is unfit, including the factors used to decide custody disputes. These factors are found in O.C.G.A. §19-9-3. Many of these factors relate to a parent’s fitness, such as the home environment the parent offers and the capacity of a parent to provide love, affection, education, and rearing.

However, some specific factors could indicate a parent may be unfit, including:

  • Neglecting or abandoning the child
  • Failing to provide for the child’s needs 
  • Abusing the child or treating a child in a cruel manner
  • Exposing the child to harm, danger, obscenity, or immoral situations

If a judge finds that a parent engaged in any of the above behavior or conduct, he is likely to find that the parent is unfit to have custody of the child.

Other Factors Used to Evaluate a Parent’s Fitness

Other Factors Used to Evaluate a Parent’s Fitness

When a parent’s fitness is challenged in family court, the judge must decide whether the child should stay with the parent. The judge may order a child custody evaluation. A professional evaluator is appointed to analyze and examine the situation and report to the judge.

Areas and factors the evaluator will investigate and consider include:

Allegations of Substance Abuse

Parents who abuse drugs or alcohol are often considered unfit. They may place their drug or alcohol addiction ahead of the welfare of their children. Furthermore, a parent who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot adequately care for a child.

Allegations of Child Abuse or Neglect

A history of child abuse or neglect is a factor that cannot be ignored or downplayed. Therefore, the evaluator assesses the current situation and reviews any history of child abuse or neglect, including obtaining reports, claims, and investigations by DFCS (Division of Family & Children Services). 

Childcare and Education 

A parent should play an active role in the child’s care and education. If a parent relied on another person or the other parent to provide all of the care for the child, that is not a good indication the parent would be fit to take care of the child alone.

For example, did the other parent have the sole responsibility for bathing, feeding, clothing, assisting with homework, and dealing with extra-curricular activities? If so, would the parent be capable and willing to do those things now?

Prepared and Able to Care for the Child’s Needs

A fit parent must care for the child’s basic needs, including providing a safe home, clothing, and food. If a child has special needs, is the parent able and willing to meet those needs? A fit parent must also be able to provide the child’s emotional stability.

Providing Age-Appropriate Restrictions

A fit parent understands that a child is not mature enough to make certain decisions. Therefore, the parent must place age-appropriate restrictions on the child’s activities, such as television viewing, internet activity, social engagements, and friends. For example, allowing a child to watch R-rated movies or stay up until midnight on school nights playing video games indicates an unfit parent.

Domestic Violence and Relationship with Other Parent

The court may view domestic violence as an indication of an unfit parent, especially if the child witnesses the acts of violence. 

Also, the court will carefully examine how the parent claiming to be fit acts toward the other parent. For example, a fit parent can foster a loving, close relationship between the child and the other parent. However, if a parent disparages the other parent in front of the child or engages in parental alienation, the court will note this as an indication of being unfit.

Mental Illness 

If a parent has a diagnosed mental illness, it could prevent the parent from providing a stable, safe environment for the child. Because psychiatric illnesses vary, the court will judge the situation based on the parent’s mental health condition. A mental illness may not automatically render a parent unfit.

The determination of whether a parent is unfit is not solely based on the above factors. Medical records, mental health evaluations, reports from child protective services, and recommendations by child custody evaluators are considered when determining a parent’s fitness. 

Having sound legal advice regardless of which side you are on in the custody battle is the best way to protect your child’s best interest. Talk with a Lawrenceville child custody attorney immediately if you and your partner separate.

To learn more and get the help you deserve, call our divorce & family law firm at (404) 594-2143 or reach out to Crystal Wright Law online by visiting our contact us page.
You can also visit our law firm at 440 S. Perry Street Suite 105, Lawrenceville, GA 30046.