The definition of an unfit parent is governed by state laws, which vary by state. A parent may be deemed unfit if they have been abusive, neglected, or failed to provide proper care for the child. A parent with a mental disturbance or addiction to drugs or alcohol may also be found to be an unfit parent. Failure to visit, provide support, or incarceration are other examples of grounds for being found unfit.
For example, one state declares the power of the juvenile court to terminate the rights of a natural parent (a) who was "unfit or incompetent by reason of conduct or condition seriously detrimental to the child," (b) who "abandoned the child," or (c) who "substantially and continuously or repeatedly refused or failed to give the child proper parental care and protection."
Some state laws provide for a fitness hearing to be held after an adjudication of neglect, dependency or abuse. In such cases, the law may specify a time period after such an adjudication in which the parent may make efforts to resolve the problem, such as seeking drug or alcohol treatment. A parent's failure to make reasonable efforts and progress within the specifed time frame is a ground of unfitness. Local laws should be consulted for specific requirements in your area.
The court will often award sole custody to the other parent when one parent is deemed unfit, or if both parents are deemed unfit, the child may be placed in foster care. Evidence of parental unfitness toward one child may be grounds for terminating the parental rights to other children even though the parent never abused or neglected those children. The best interest of the child is the determining factor.
In determining the child's best interest, one court has stated that it shall consider, but is not limited to, the following circumstances:
- (i) The willingness of the parent or parents to receive or care for
(ii) That the child has been removed from the custody of the parent
by temporary order of the court for a period of six months and further
(A) The conditions which led to the removal still exist;
(B) There is little likelihood that those conditions will be remedied
at an early date so that the child can be returned to the parent in the
near future; and
(C) The continuation of the parent-child relationship greatly diminishes
the child's prospects for early integration into a stable and permanent