In decades past, it was common for mothers to be granted custody of the children in a divorce, with fathers being given “visitation,” having the children on alternate weekends and perhaps one evening a week. Those arrangements reflected the prevailing gender roles of the times, in which mothers were caregivers and fathers were breadwinners.
In recent years, Minnesota courts have taken a much different approach to child custody. In recognition of the fact that children benefit from a strong relationship with both parents, and that fathers shouldn’t be mere “visitors” in their children’s lives, we now speak more of “parenting time,” which parents often split equally.
But while it is generally accepted that fathers are more involved in their children’s lives after a divorce or breakup, there is still a cultural expectation that mothers will be equally involved as fathers, if not more so. As a consequence, when a mother is not the primary custodian of her child, or loses custody altogether, she often faces judgment and feels shame in a way a father typically does not. It’s not fair, but it’s what many women face, and it can be very isolating.
How can a mother lose custody of her child? What does it mean? And is there any recourse for a mother who loses custody?
There are numerous reasons that mothers lose custody of their children. Some are understandable, and at least one is very surprising.
The most common reason that mothers lose custody of their children is abuse: physical, emotional, or sexual. While many people believe that men are more likely to be abusive, women are capable of all types of child abuse. Because society tends to see women as nurturing, it is often more shocking to learn that a mother has abused her children.
In some cases, the mother is not abusive herself, but may fail to protect her children from abuse by a new romantic partner. If the court becomes aware of abuse by a mother or her new partner, the mother is likely to lose custody.
A mother who fails to take care of her child’s basic needs, such as food and clothing, hygiene and medical care, is also at risk of losing custody. Neglect is often intertwined with other issues such as child abuse or substance abuse.
A mother who habitually abuses drugs or alcohol is not only setting a bad example for her children. Her substance abuse may make her unable to supervise or care for them, and she might use money needed for the family’s support to support her addiction instead. Addiction is a medical condition that needs treatment, but it can also make it difficult to parent effectively. Consequently, mothers struggling with substance abuse issues may lose custody.
It may not feel like kidnapping when it’s your own child, but that’s what it is when a mother takes a child in defiance of a custody order. Courts in Minnesota and elsewhere are likely to grant custody to the other parent when one parent has abducted the child, even briefly. In joint custody cases, parents are supposed to work together for the child’s benefit. Abducting a child shows a clear unwillingness to do that.
Being the “primary caretaker” used to confer an advantage in custody disputes. Minnesota law now recognizes that both parents are often deeply involved in a child’s care, and that there may not be one primary caretaker. That said, leaving almost all the caregiving to the other parent could count against a mother in a custody dispute.
If the child is old enough to express a preference to live with the other parent, the court may consider the child’s reasonable preference regarding custody. However, this is only one of the best interests factors the court will evaluate; a child’s preference alone will not decide custody.
Remember when we said one of the reasons mothers lose custody would surprise you? This is it. A recent study discovered that when mothers claim that the other parent physically or sexually abused the child, the mothers were more likely to lose custody of the child, especially if the other parent cross-claimed that the mother’s allegations were an attempt to alienate the child from them. (On the contrary, no such effect was found when it was a father alleging that the mother abused the child).
So, in short, a mother who abuses her child is more likely to lose custody of that child; but a mother who claims (even truthfully) that the other parent is abusive is also at risk of losing custody.
It doesn’t seem fair. But it highlights the need to have an experienced custody attorney working for you and your child from the start.
Minnesota courts value stability for children, so once a custody arrangement is in place, it is very difficult to change. Simply put, it is easier to keep custody than it is to get it back once you have lost it.
If you are facing a custody dispute, do not assume that you will get the custody arrangement you want just because you are the mother. Work with an experienced Minnesota child custody attorney to help ensure that the court receives all the information it needs to order a custody arrangement that is favorable.
If you are already involved in a custody dispute and have lost custody of your child, it is even more important to have skilled representation because you are fighting an uphill battle. We invite you to contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation to discuss your situation.