How is an Unfit Parent Defined in Virginia?

Every parent wants to do right by their children, but not every parent has the means and ability to do so. An unfit parent is one who cannot or will not meet their child’s needs for guidance, care, and support. The consequences of unfitness allegations depend on the context.

The Law Usually Defers to Parents

The right of a parent to raise their children in accordance with their beliefs and principles is a cherished value in our society, and is codified in Virginia Code § 1-240.1. Courts are reluctant to intervene in a family unless there is evidence a child is at risk physically, emotionally, or sometimes, in danger of missing out on an education.

However, the law also allows anyone who suspects a parent of neglecting or abusing a child to report that parent anonymously. A parent who faces court action regarding their fitness should contact an experienced Virginia child protection attorney immediately.

Contact with the Child Welfare Agency

Parents experiencing chronic homelessness, intractable mental illness, or substance abuse issues may be unfit. If Child Protective Services (CPS) is involved with the family and the parent cannot meet the agency’s goals, CPS could seek to declare a parent unfit, and take custody away from the parent.

CPS usually tries to work with a parent to improve a concerning situation. The agency might offer services and develop a safety plan, which requires regular check-ins to ensure the child is safe and the parent is addressing the issues of concern. When the agency determines the parent is not engaging with the safety plan or the child is in danger, CPS might remove a child might from the parent’s care. Eventually, CPS might seek to terminate the parent’s rights and place the child for adoption.

Allegations of Unfitness in Custody Determinations

Custody disputes can become bitter and ugly. Parents must understand that courts make custody decisions based on the child’s best interests. A judge will look at the parents’ behavior toward each other during the proceedings for clues as to how they will co-parent.

When parents cannot agree on child custody issues, one parent might accuse the other of being unfit. This accusation has severe consequences—if true, the court might limit an unfit parent’s access to the child. However, if the court determines a parent made a false accusation of unfitness, the judge might conclude the parent cannot put aside their feelings to act in a child’s best interests. Evidence of child abuse or neglect in the past, domestic violence, active substance abuse, criminal activity, or untreated mental illness could spur a court to limit unsupervised contact between a parent and child.

The Custody Evaluation Process

When concerns about fitness exist, a court might order a custody evaluation, or a parent could ask for one. A psychologist or social worker with special training in child development and custody issues interviews the children, parents, and other people involved in their lives. They will visit each parent’s home and observe their interactions with the children.

The evaluator will make a formal report about the custody arrangements they feel serve the children’s best interests. The court need not adopt the evaluator’s recommendation, but it will influence the judge’s decision.

The Court can also appoint an attorney (known as a guardian ad litem) to represent the children.  The guardian ad litem (or GAL) will interview the parents, visit their homes, and talk to the children.  The GAL can then make recommendations to the judge, as well as present evidence and question witnesses during hearings.

Talk to a Virginia Attorney About Parental Unfitness Issues

If your family is involved with CPS or unfitness has become an issue between you and your co-parent, contact a Virginia lawyer immediately. Allegations of unfitness can have a profound impact on your family for years to come. Do not risk your relationships with your children. Call today to speak with a knowledgeable and compassionate attorney.