The courts look at many factors when deciding whether to award a parent custody or visitation rights. One of the most important factors is the fitness of either parent to care for their children and provide a safe and secure home environment. The courts operate under the assumption that it is in the best interests of a child to have both parents involved in their care and upbringing. Therefore, when it comes to proving that one parent is unfit, there is a high standard that must be met before a judge will diminish or terminate someone’s parental rights.
How Massachusetts family courts decide if someone is unfit to parent can be complex. Unfitness is usually required to be found in guardianships, care and protection cases, and in contested adoptions. A judge’s decision is typically based on the findings of a thorough investigation. If the parent of a child you want to take guardianship of is unfit, if your ex has accused you of being an unfit parent, or you are seeking to have your co-parent deemed unfit, you should speak with an attorney from O’Connor Family Law. Because our team has over 35 combined years of exclusive family law experience, we can provide further insight on the court's rationale in these matters.
What Constitutes Parental Unfitness?
It’s important to understand the various situations that may lead a judge in Massachusetts to deem someone as unfit to carry out their parental duties. Generally, if a parent neglects or is unable to provide for the needs and welfare of their child, the court may determine that they are parentally unfit.
Claims of parental unfitness often arise from situations involving alleged abuse, abandonment, or domestic violence between parents. A parent with a violent criminal history or ongoing substance or alcohol abuse issues may also face questions surrounding parental unfitness.
In any case, the court won’t lessen or remove a parent's parental rights without adequate evidence to support these claims. A parent whose fitness is in question has the right to tell their side of the story and bring evidence to refute these claims. Similarly, the party making these allegations should have strong evidence to support their case, such as outside testimony, photographic proof of abusive behavior, or statements from an expert.
Considerations in Claims of Parental Unfitness
When Massachusetts courts make decisions about a parent’s fitness to raise and care for their kids, the best interests of the children are always the primary concern. If one party raises concerns of parental unfitness in a custody case, the court does not approach a reduction or termination of the other’s parental rights lightly.
As such, the court may consider the parent's ability to provide a safe home environment and make suitable decisions for their child's education and upbringing. If allegations of drug or alcohol abuse are the motivating factors behind claims of parental unfitness, the court may consider whether the parent has taken steps toward recovery and how long they have been sober (if at all). If a parent has a history of serious mental health issues, a judge also may consider whether this could interfere with their ability to create a safe environment for their child. If one parent is deemed unfit, they could lose custody and/or visitation rights.
In cases where a parent has been incarcerated for a violent offense or has a track record of child abuse or neglect, the court may take things a step further and terminate their parental rights entirely. A parent who has cut off contact with their child or who has a history of relapsing to drug or substance abuse may also be in danger of losing their parental rights.
Depending on the child's age, a court evaluator may consider their wishes to a certain extent. However, if the child's desires conflict with their own best interests, the court may issue a ruling in contrast with their wishes.
Call a Lawyer to Discuss How Massachusetts Family Courts Determine Parental Unfitness
There is no clear-cut scenario for how Massachusetts family courts decide if someone is unfit to parent. Local judges weigh the evidence carefully before deciding. If you have questions about bringing or responding to parental unfitness claims, reach out to the caring team at O’Connor Family Law.