What is an Unfit Parent?
Florida Statute §751.05 clearly states that for a parent to be considered unfit by the court, he or she has to neglect, abandon, or abuse the child. Another reason for finding a parent unfit is if he or she suffers for addiction or mental illness.
Mental Illness and Substance Abuse
When it comes to mental illness and/or substance abuse, a judge needs all the fact before making a ruling. If there is a chance of harm coming to the child because of the parent’s behavior, the judge can order supervised visitations and/or award custody to the other parent.
Factors That Can Result in an “Unfit” Ruling
Parental abuse and neglect are the primary causes for a judge to rule that a parent is unfit. Abuse can include physical, emotional, sexual, and verbal behavior. The harm caused by psychological and emotional abuse can follow a child for a lifetime.
The court will also consider neglect when ruling on a parent’s fitness. Neglect can include insufficient food for the child to develop properly, not enough clothes, or the lack of reasonable shelter. A parent taking a child to a homeless shelter won’t likely be considered neglectful but providing unsafe living conditions that involve insect infestations or health hazards may have the parent ruled unfit. This can include free access to guns or drugs. In some cases, a parent alienating the child against the other parent may be considered parental neglect.
In Florida specifically, the following are considered causes to rule that the parent is unfit:
- Failure to provide adequate medical care.
- Failure to enroll or keep the child in school.
- The parent facing long-term incarceration.
- Actual proof of the physical and/or emotional abuse.
- Parental history of committing crimes or being a sexual predator or permitting someone else to sexually abuse the child
- Domestic violence within the household.
- Parental history of alcohol or drug abuse.
Proving that a Parent is not Fit
When parents divorce, one parent may well accuse the other of being unfit simply out of anger and bitterness, without any basis in fact. A judge won’t accept allegations of abuse or neglect – he or she will demand proof. This would include:
Actual statements from family members, teachers, friends, or neighbors – people would know the child and the surrounding circumstances.
Statements from professional experts such as doctors, counselors, and medical and school records.
A physical inspection of the home.
After examining the evidence presented, the judge will consider all the facts and determine if the parent is fit or unfit. If the ruling is unfit, the judge can give sole custody to the other parent, limit visitations, or provide for supervised contact with the child. In extreme cases, parental rights may be terminated.
If, after presenting evidence, the situation is still not clear, the judge may demand a professional third-party investigation to accumulate evidence. There are certain situations when the label “unfit” may apply to both parents. In such cases, anyone with knowledge can notify Child Protective Service, who will determine if removal of the child from the home is an option.
What Happens After Being Declared an Unfit Parent?
Parental rights run deep, and the courts do not terminate or alter them easily. The parent will be required to undergo a mental fitness evaluation to regain custody. A parent usually is given an opportunity to change the situation for the better – cease drugs and/or physical abuse. Provide an adequate home for the child. With the help of an attorney, the parent can return to court and ask for a new evaluation. People do change, and the court will take new evidence into consideration rather than permanently separating parent and child. In Florida, as in most states, the decision will be based on what is in the best interest of the child.
Parents are expected – and legally bound – to provide for the emotional and physical safety of their child. If, for whatever reasons, the parents fail to do so, the courts are likely to step in to evaluate the situation. If the court rules against the parents, parental rights may be limited or revoked. As a rule, the court does provide the parents with the opportunity to prove that they have remedied the abusive situation. Any parent who has been accused of child neglect or abuse should contact a family law attorney immediately.
National Hotline for Domestic Violence: 800-799-7233
For Miami-Dade, Florida Domestic Violence Victim & Related Services:
24 Hour Florida Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-500-1119; TTY: 1-800-621-4202
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233); TTY: 1-800-787-3224
Florida Department of Children & Families: 1-800-96-ABUSE (22873), http://www.dcf.state.fl.us
Victim Response Inc/The Lodge (305) 693-1170, thelodgemiami.org
North Dade Victim Center (Safespace Shelter North) (305) 758-2546
South Dade Victim Center (Safespace Shelter South) (305) 247-4249
Coordinated Victims Assistance Center (CVAC): 2400 S. Dixie Hwy, Miami, FL 33133; (305) 285-5900
Survivor’s Pathway: 1801 Coral Way, Miami, FL 33145; (786) 275-4364
Clerk of Courts (DV Division)
Lawson E. Thomas Court House Center (main / downtown courthouse): 175 NW 1st Avenue, Miami, FL 33128 (mezzanine / M floor): (305) 349-5813
Hialeah Courthouse: (305) 520-4002
South Dade Government Center: (305) 252-5807
North Dade Justice Center: (305) 354-8736
Joseph Caleb Center: (305) 636-2415
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