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What is an Unfit Parent?

Dan Cavallari
Updated May 16, 2024
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The definition of an unfit parent will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the general considerations are usually consistent: an unfit parent is one who has somehow neglected his or her child in such a way that puts the child at risk. Failing to provide food, clothing, or protection to the child may be part of the definition of an unfit parent, as can addiction and substance abuse that results in abuse of the child or dangerous child neglect. A parent with an emotional or mental instability or disability may also be found to be unfit.

In most places, it is quite difficult to prove whether a person is an unfit parent, and the definition of an unfit parent is often left purposely vague. Most parents who are found to be unfit will exhibit certain characteristics or fall into certain regular patterns, such as failing to bring children to school regularly, failing to provide basic necessities to the child, putting the child in danger physically or mentally on a regular basis, and so on. Abandonment of the child is also usually cause to label the parent unfit, whether the abandonment happens consistently or only once. Abandonment as a definition may also be left vague.

If a parent is found to be unfit, the child may be put in the custody of the other parent. If both parents are found to be unfit, the child may be put in foster care or in the care of another relative. This foster care is not always necessarily permanent, and the unfit parent can work to get custody of the child back if the conditions that caused the unfit determination are remedied. In many jurisdictions, the child will be placed in temporary custody for six months or more while the unfit parent works to remedy the situations that caused the child to be taken from his or her custody.

A judge in court may require the parent to take steps toward improving the quality of the child's life. This may include taking parenting or anger management classes, or even finishing a high school education. A court may order the parent to take part in a mental evaluation or therapy program, or even drug treatment and counseling. The reasons for a parent to be deemed unfit can vary so vastly that the steps a parent must take as a result can vary just as vastly.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By anon986803 — On Jan 27, 2015

I am a recovering addict. I got sick and ended up in hospital with a blood clot in my chest. While I was in the hospital, the girl watching my six and eight year olds had marijuana scraps, a bong and buster on my dresser. Needless to say, the girls were taken back into care. My baby was 2.5 months old and taken also. I relapsed after that.

Now care is claiming I'm just a junkie and my kids should be adopted. I am a good mother. The agent had no complaints before I got sick and I was a single mom with a newborn, a 5 year old with special needs and an 8 year old. I am going to trial in June and pray I get my precious girls back! I have struggled with addiction for many years, but have never abused harmed or neglected my children!

By anon945501 — On Apr 13, 2014

Someone please give me some advice! I am filing for child support, but my ex just sells weed and has no proof of employment and now his lawyer is concerned that since he has no proof of employment, but is depositing large amounts of money he could be facing jail time. Is this true? Will they not give him a chance to turn his life around and find a job? Help. I don’t want him to go to jail, but I don’t really want to drop the case because how is this fair to me? If I drop the case, I know he will continue to sell weed and I don’t want my daughter in that kind of environment, but I also do not want him to go to jail! What do I do?

By Dasani08 — On Mar 29, 2014

My kids father is now in jail. This is his third time. He has three felonies and he has made my life impossible. He has a pension and because of this pension, he thinks he can pay a lawyer to take my kids away from me.

The kids love their dad, but my oldest child is bitter and angry. Recently his father told my kid, "I hate your mother. I hate her." My niece overheard the conversation and told me. I could not believe what this man had done. I also found out that this was not the first time he had said such things to my child who's 15 years old. My youngest is 8. This man says my kids will have lawyers and they are going to want to live with me because I am fun.

Can he have a chance to take my kids, even though he's been a felon, all because he has money? I've had an order of protection on him in the past because of violence. He's beyond unfit and it breaks my heart for my kids to have to witness and see all this. If I told you all he has done. you would not believe it. I could write a book. Can he do this all because he has money?

By anon924465 — On Jan 04, 2014

My soon to be ex husband has mentally abused me for years. Recently, he called CAS on me and had me removed from the home, even though the court mandated that no one remove them or me. He tried to say the school called, but my lawyer found out the opposite. He called and CAS has given me supervised visits only, stating that my abuse when I was a child and the counseling I had years later made me mentally unstable.

Yes, I have put in a complaint to the review board. Since his grandfather died, he has come into a lot of money. He has been keeping my children away from me and putting them in the middle. They know everything that is going on. Again, the court told him not to tell them.

I tell CAS these things and they tell me he is not the issue. I am frustrated and terrified. Yes, I have a lawyer, but I am essentially homeless and my reasons for living I can only see when he or CAS say I can. I just need a direction to point my lawyer in. I am not getting results from her that I need. She does not seem to be fighting for me much. What the courts said he had to do he has not done. Please, where do I go from here?

By ajd1234 — On Dec 01, 2013

My friend keeps leaving her children with mother every weekend so she can go out drinking, plus she's just come back from a week's holiday (without the kids) while her 68 year old mother looks after them (the kids are 5 and 9). I had to give her child money for a birthday because she couldn't afford to get him anything. Would this be classed as neglect? I need some advice.

By anon355376 — On Nov 15, 2013

My husband, who has now been separated from me for a couple months after he tried to kill me while I was pregnant by strangling me until I could no longer breathe in front of my other kids, now is suing for full custody of the kids. including the baby I'm pregnant with. Does he have rights to the baby I'm pregnant with even though he tried to kill me while I was pregnant?

By jennanj — On Sep 25, 2013

I have a nine month old daughter. Her father and I are no longer together. We both moved on. He has a girlfriend and I have a boyfriend. My boyfriend have been on and off for months. He used to smoke pot and sell it, but no longer does either one. My child’s father is fighting in court that he doesn’t want him around her because of his past. Can he do that? My boyfriend and I recently just got back together. When we broke up, he smoked pot, but now that we are back together he has been clean for 37 days.

By anon346031 — On Aug 24, 2013

My ex and I had an agreement that I have my daughter three and a half days and she gets her three and a half days. It's been like that for three and a half years. Now that I got married. she is trying to take my days away from me. My daughter spends more time with her grandmother then her own mom, who has felony assault and shoplifting charges. My daughter is also starting to get in trouble in school and she just started kindergarten. I can provide financially, emotionally and educationally for my daughter, and it tears my heart. Males get the crappy end of the stick when it comes to getting custody of their kids for the right reasons.

By anon343672 — On Aug 01, 2013

@Jessie25: I'm sorry for your legal and personal predicament, but you had better be prepared for some difficult decisions ahead. Someone somewhere is going to get hurt; there's no doubt about it. I'd say the priority in your life right now is providing a stable and safe environment for your son. The boy's biological father apparently wants to use your current boyfriend's past behavior as leverage during the custody hearing. Don't hide your head in the sand here. There's a reason why he cannot be left unsupervised with children right now, and the judge will almost certainly take that into consideration. He can disagree with that restriction or you may want to see it as a past transgression, but it's the elephant in the room. Do I think your boyfriend would do anything to harm your son? No. But others are going to wonder if it's worth the risk.

Having said that, I wouldn't suggest breaking up with your boyfriend solely over this situation. Your legal representatives for the custody hearing are going to present you in the most positive light possible, but it has to be a realistic light as well. Yes, you have this man in your life with a juvenile history of sexual assault. But you also have a stable home and the ability to care for your child, with or without this man in your life. The judge is going to compare your situation with the boy's father's situation and make a difficult decision.

I hope it goes favorably for you, but joint custody may be preferable to no custody at all. You cannot change your current boyfriend's legal realities, but he should continue to abide by any restrictions the court may put on the both of you. Good luck.

By Jessie25 — On Jul 08, 2013

I need advice on a custody situation. My boyfriend sexually assaulted someone when he was 13. Now he is 25 and has not done anything like that ever again. Children's aid called me and advised me of this but knew I was a responsible parent and my boyfriend cannot be around my son unless he's supervised. My son's father told me if I stayed he would take me for full custody and I'm scared. I don't know if I should break up with my boyfriend or go to court?

By ephedralover — On Apr 10, 2013

My daughter has been in the mental hospital, because she is now suicidal. My ex-wife has my daughter living with her mother because the school is close to her house, and the mother lives in a different county with her sister. My daughter has all F's at school and sometimes my daughter does not see her mom for a whole week. The mother has full custody of my daughter and I'm paying child support, but her mom does not even take care of her. Her grandma takes care of my daughter. Please advise.

By peachypeach — On Apr 06, 2013

I know a mother who smokes weed around her child all the time. I think the baby needs to get taken away from her, now does anyone know how long it will stay in the baby's system for them to take a drug test to get custody taken away?

By anon327487 — On Mar 28, 2013

I have a question. My husband called the cops and told them that he hit me and he did not and I didn't talk to the cops. CPS got called and told me that my kids weren't supposed to be around him, but he is a good dad and my kids love him. The no contact order was dropped when he went to court, so how can CPS tell me that, if the judge dropped the no contact order.

By amypollick — On Mar 23, 2013

@anon326541: I think it's time to call CPS. Tell the school principal, or the children's teachers. They are obligated to call if they, or someone else, is suspicious about a child's welfare. In my opinion, dirty clothes plus hunger equals neglect, even if they have new clothes once in a while. Good luck.

By anon326541 — On Mar 22, 2013

Based on what I have read, please tell me if I should be calling the CPS on this person:

The woman has custody of her two sons, ages 7 and 10. They are one of two categories when they show up at school: dirty and poorly dressed or wearing brand new clothing. They pack their own lunches at home in the morning, with the 10 year old doing the majority of the raising of the 7 year old. For lunch she only buys the "small" lunchables (4 pieces of cheese, meat, crackers with a drink) only. They are constantly losing weight and becoming thin.

At what point as a stranger do I intervene? And how?

By anon325372 — On Mar 15, 2013

My mom and I are stuck. My sister just had a baby after not realizing she was pregnant. She has drug, alcohol and mental issues. Her boyfriend, the father of the baby, is now in the picture but my sister complains about him and he has beat her in the recent past.

The baby is not gaining weight properly and from what we have seen, they feed her, change her and leave her in the crib all the time. They don't talk to her or hold her outside of feeding her and my sister has even said that the boyfriend props the baby up and props the bottle up with towels so he doesn't have to feed her. My sister also has anger issues and has "temper tantrums" screaming, throwing things, cursing.

We don't know what to do. CPS was called, but a relative who works in the system intervened and they never went to the house. I have been keeping a log for the past month and both my mom and I go to her apartment every day. This is killing us, but we are afraid if we sue for custody and fail, we will never see the baby again.

The baby's pediatrician is aware of all of this and she is very "protect the child" at all costs so we are working closely with her and have spoken with her at least once a week for the past month. The baby is only a month old and we are so scared that she is failing to thrive and will be damaged by this. She isn't eating well because it is so stressful at my sister's home.

We are hoping that the baby will be admitted to the hospital after the next visit this week to be weighed because she isn't gaining weight and then we will have some starting point. We aren't sure where the boyfriend stands in all of this. He has no job and just sits around all day long and doesn't help at all with the baby, according to my sister. Also, she has a full blown alcoholic guy living in the apartment and he is no help to us because he has a thing for my sister. It's a huge mess and we are so scared and so stressed and don't know where to turn.

By anon323349 — On Mar 05, 2013

I want full custody of my children. Their father drinks all the time and never pays attention to them. He always leaves them with his parents. He usually only has them right before bed and on Saturday night on his week. He yells at them all the time he has them.

He also puts them in danger by not making them buckle up in the vehicle and they are 7 and 9. He says there wasn't enough room because too many people were in there. My opinion: if there isn't room for my kids to buckle up, you need to take an extra car!

By anon322724 — On Mar 01, 2013

Me and my so called partner have been living together for five years now, and she mentally abuses me every day. She used to physically hit me but this has stopped for a while.

I would leave but I have three beautiful kids with her and I don't want them growing up like her and her mother. I think she still has issues from when she was a child. She used to self harm and tried to commit suicide.

I will not leave my children with her. What rights do I have. Can I make her get help or can I get custody of my children (I want them to have a mum and dad).

My partner always says horrible things about me to the kids to upset me and I have had enough. My kids don't even seem happy when she is there. Can anyone please help me? I feel trapped.

By anon318261 — On Feb 06, 2013

I want full custody of my 4 year old son. I already have a contact order to see him every other weekend,. but his mother has now stopped all contact.

His mother is on all sorts of medication and she has mental problems which has led to neglecting my son, for exampled, her leaving her medication around which resulted him overdosing on three different occasions. She doesn't feed him properly and he has missed a lot of school because she always thinks he is ill when he isn't.

Her mental personality has rubbed off on my child so that he is scared of everything. She's a massive hypochondriac. She constantly gives me abuse and harasses my partner and is now trying to use my other children I have with my partner as a weapon against me. I want my son to live with me to have a better life. I brought this up the last time I was in court but because she has a mental team working with her, but they said everything is OK. I don't understand how they can leave a child at risk from an unfit parent compared to me -- a very fit parent. I'm now going to court again because she has stopped my contact with my son again. What are the chances of me getting my son to live with me?

By anon313481 — On Jan 12, 2013

An unfit parent is an unfit or overweight person who also happens to be a parent. On the contrary, I consider myself, for example, to be a somewhat unfit single person. Food for thought?

By anon308958 — On Dec 13, 2012

I believe that certain children and youth case workers abuse their power, and let their feelings towards the parents guide their decisions instead of basing them on the facts.

After a fight I had with a longtime friend, she began calling the agency on me every day to cause drama for me. Initially, I was very welcoming to the case worker, informing her that everything in my house was always under control, and that my door was always open for her to see for herself. However, after a month straight of visits every day, I became irritated because, even though each time she came to my home and saw that it was clean, my daughter and I were healthy, happy, fed, and well groomed, she still refused to drop the case. On one visit, I was particularly irritated by her presence, and I threatened to contact an attorney about harassment. The next time she came out, it was with her supervisor, and the state's attorney. They told me that all I had to do to stop the "drop-in's" (which is what they called their harassment) was sign a "Safety Plan" that stated that I would always have someone with me while I was with my daughter.

Since my daughter and I lived with my mother, step-father, sister, brother and cousin at the time (and I could barely use the bathroom alone) I gladly signed the paper to get them off my back. After giving the caseworker the names and birthdays of everyone in the house, they left. A few days later, she came back to check that I was complying with the plan. When she came into the house my daughter, my cousin, my brother and I were all present. It was at that time that she informed me that my mother's Social Security number was the only one she had obtained the day I signed the paper and therefore, she was the only person on the "safety plan". She continued to tell me I was in violation of the plan and she would be removing my daughter from my custody! It was a horrible scene. The police were called and my daughter was torn screaming out of my arms. Custody was granted to her father (our relationship is very hot and cold). With him having complete power, I am hardly ever able to see my daughter. This happened almost two years ago, and I am still fighting to get custody back.

I'm not the perfect parent, and I'm not even sure one exists (unless you speak to my ex-sister in law, and she'll tell you how perfect she is) I just want my daughter back. The times I do see her it breaks my heart to leave her. I miss her, and I know she misses me too. My greatest fear is that she'll think I'm not around because I don't love her. I'm dying inside. I want my baby back. How can the state do this?

By anon302961 — On Nov 12, 2012

I smoke weed once in a while when I don't have my kids, like when they're at the baby sitter. I haven't smoked in a week, and I'm not going to smoke anymore.

I have a trial date in December for full custody, My ex wants 50/50 and he still smokes weed, but his parents watch my son most of the time when he is supposed to have him, so I'm sure he doesn't smoke when he has him, because he rarely has him. I can't prove this, however, and he has a lawyer and I don't.

How can I make sure that I win in court for guardianship? I am a young mom and have been accused lots of times of smoking pot around my child. However the ministry closed the files due to no proof. I don't do any other drugs. I just smoke weed.

By anon300873 — On Nov 01, 2012

I have a situation where I am currently pregnant, but not too sure on what to do as far as when the baby is born.

The father of the child and I are no longer seeing each other due to anger issues he has that he claims they were stemmed from his childhood and being in the military. He says he's "aware" that he has an anger issue, but refuses to get help because he says it will put negative notes in his military file. (Which I believe is complete crap, because I have military friends who are still in active duty, but have sought PTSD treatment/counseling.)

He tells me that he wants to be in his child's life (when he is born), but he becomes belligerent any time something does not go his way (and I refuse to have my child in that type of environment).

He claims that there are no grounds for proving he would be classified as an unfit parent, and if it came to court, he basically said he would lie to "get his way". I have pictures of all of the objects he's either smashed with a hammer or fist. Does anyone have any suggestions?

By anon257942 — On Mar 29, 2012

I want to get full custody of my 1 year old. I work full time and I'm also going to college. My question is I'm kind of scared of applying for full custody because I don't want to give the father rights to take my son. The reason why is because he recently started smoking marijuana and just got into a gang.

My fear is him driving with my kid in the car and getting shot at. Would this make him an unfit father? I mean, he works full time, he is renting a room and makes more money than I do, but I'm the one who takes care of the kid. I provide for him. All the father does is buy him things when I ask him to. Other than that, he won't offer to.

What are the chances of me getting full custody? I don't want to take his son away from him, but I would prefer him visiting the child under supervision.

By Clairdelune — On Nov 15, 2011

I think that the law recognizes that usually when a parent is abusing, neglecting their child or children, that parent has a disability, either physical or mental, is abusing drugs or alcohol, or any number of other negative problems.

It might be decided that the child be placed in foster care, but every effort should be made to help parents overcome their problems. If they get their life back on track, it's possible they will get their child back.

It's always important, though, that anyone observing abuse or neglect of children should report it to authorities right away.

By PinkLady4 — On Nov 14, 2011

As far as determining whether a parent or parents are unfit to raise their child, I think that the legal system has set up the criteria pretty well. The fact that the definition is vague is helpful, so that a professional can investigate and determine all the factors involved and make a decision whether to place the child in another situation, temporarily or permanently.

It's important that the professional, who investigates any report of unfit parents, should be highly trained, and it's always best to have several professionals on the investigating team.

By StarJo — On Nov 14, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I think that you should end your aunt’s abuse. If you get disowned by a few relatives, so what? These people are letting her get away with abuse. Do you really want to be associated with them?

You should call children’s social services in your area. They will send someone out to your aunt’s house to investigate. She never has to know it was you who reported the abuse.

Even if your family does figure out that you called the agency, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you helped save your cousin. You will have a clear conscience, and you will be able to sleep peacefully each night knowing that you did the right thing.

By lighth0se33 — On Nov 13, 2011

I am having a moral issue involving an unfit parent. I know that my aunt is so mean to her child. She beats him regularly, and she sends him to school without any lunch money.

His dad is not in the picture at all. My parents tell me that I should stay out of it, because if I stir up trouble, then he will have to go live with a stranger, who might be even more mean to him.

I just think he deserves a chance at a better life. It’s hard, because she’s family, but I really feel like I need to tell someone who could help. If I do, I could risk being disowned by several members of my family.

What should I do? I’m so torn. If I do decide to report her, who should I call?

By kylee07drg — On Nov 12, 2011

@orangey03 - It’s always best if the child of an unfit parent can stay with relatives instead of being passed around the system. Too many kids wind up miserable in foster care.

The unfamiliar surroundings can cause anxiety. Being thrust upon strangers suddenly can be too much for a young child to handle. They can develop problems in school, as well as mental and physical issues.

I have seen too many children become victims of an unfit parent and eventually the foster care system. I am a social worker, and I always lobby to get the child in with relatives if at all possible.

By orangey03 — On Nov 12, 2011

My best friend in elementary school had a mother that fit this description. The mother was supposed to come pick him up from school, but she totally forgot on more than one occasion.

He ended up just sitting there on the sidewalk for hours until she finally remembered. One day, a teacher happened to be passing by the school after hours and saw him there. When she found out that this was a regular occurrence, she scheduled a meeting with the mother.

Her excuse was that she fell asleep. The teacher dug a little deeper by speaking to the boy when the mother wasn’t around, and she found that the lady had a problem with alcohol.

She reported the mother to child services. In the end, she had to complete rehab while the boy stayed with relatives. Once the court determined that she was no longer an unfit parent, they let her have him back.

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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