When parents separate or divorce, agreeing on child custody and parenting time can be stressful. If one parent is unfit to care for the child, the process becomes more complex and contentious.
Courts require custody decisions and parenting plans to be in the best interest of the child. In nearly all cases, that means shared parental responsibility. In fact, Florida law requires shared parental responsibility unless such an arrangement would be detrimental to the child. If a parent is deemed to be unfit, the court may find that sole parental responsibility is in the child’s best interest.
What Is an Unfit Parent?
In simple terms, an unfit parent is a parent who is unable to care for their child or puts their child in danger of mental or physical harm. While the term may be thrown around when two parents are in a nasty custody battle, whether a parent is fit to care for their child requires a factual determination by the court.
What Does the Court Consider an Unfit Parent in Florida?
Determinations of an unfit parent often come up when a grandparent or other relative has petitioned the court for custody of the child. In that case, the court must find that the parent has abused, abandoned, or neglected the child.
The court may also consider a history of mental illness or drug abuse in determining a parent’s fitness. Florida courts have made clear that general allegations of mental instability are not enough to compel a psychological evaluation. There must be factual evidence that a parent is unable to care for the child due to mental health issues.
Abuse may include actual or threatened physical harm, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, or other acts that cause mental, physical, or emotional damage to the child.
Abandonment under Florida law means failing to make a significant contribution to the child’s care and maintenance, despite being able to do so. Parents who fail to establish a positive and meaningful relationship with the child could be deemed to have abandoned the child.
Neglect generally means that the parent failed to provide basic needs for the child, such as food, shelter, clothing, and health care.
Conduct Detrimental to the Child
Because Florida law favors both parents’ involvement in a child’s life, the court will generally not prohibit one parent from having parenting time unless it would be a detriment to the child.
Something is a detriment to the child if it causes lasting physical, emotional, or mental harm.
Some factors that could result in a finding that a parent is unfit to care for their child are:
- Failing to maintain proper medical care for the child
- Failing to keep the child enrolled in school
- Evidence that the parent physically or emotionally abused the child
- The parent is incarcerated for a significant period of the child’s life
- The parent has a history of violent criminal convictions or is considered a sexual predator
- Evidence of domestic violence
- Permitting someone else to abuse the child
- History of alcohol or drug abuse
The court will carefully weigh the evidence in each individual case to make a determination.
How Does a Family Court Determine if a Parent Is Unfit?
The Family Court in Florida is a separate division of the court system that handles domestic relations and family law matters.
In determining the parenting time or fitness of a parent to care for their child, the court will examine evidence in a hearing, such as:
- Testimony from family members, friends, or teachers
- Medical records
- Psychological reports
- School attendance, performance, and conduct records
- Testimony from other parties, such as the Department of Children and Families, a probation officer, or substance abuse counselors
- Expert witness testimony
Determining that a parent is unfit is something the courts will take very seriously. It is highly recommended that you work with an experienced child custody attorney if you are involved in a dispute about parenting time and the determination of the fitness of a parent.
Will Parental Rights be Terminated if a Parent Is Unfit?
Not necessarily. Terminating a parent’s rights is a drastic measure that courts will not take lightly. Termination of parental rights is handled through a specific court petition and procedure. Determining whether a parent is unfit may be a part of such a proceeding, but the two do not necessarily go together.
A court may determine that a parent is unfit to exercise parenting time, but that does not mean that the parent’s rights will be permanently terminated. There are circumstances where the parent may be unable to care for the child at a particular time. However, through counseling or substance abuse rehabilitation, for example, they may be able to resume parenting responsibilities in the future.
If you are struggling with custody arrangements or parenting time, consult with a reputable family law attorney near you. Whether the other parent is unable to safely care for the child or you are fighting allegations that your care is insufficient, a good child custody lawyer will be able to help.
Contact the Orlando Family and Divorce Law Firm of Conti Moore Law, PLLC for Help Today
Conti Moore Law, PLLC
815 N Magnolia Ave Suite 100
Orlando, FL 32803