What is an “Unfit Parent?”

unfit parent

Even the best parents have insecurities about how they are performing in that role. It’s easy to wonder if you are being too strict, or too lenient, a helicopter parent or a neglectful one, putting too much pressure on your kids, or not encouraging them to live up to their potential. Every day, there are a hundred choices to make, from what to serve to breakfast to what time bedtime should be. Nobody gets all of those choices 100% right, even under perfect parenting circumstances, but that does not necessarily mean they are an unfit parent.

And almost no one has the time, energy, or resources to parent “perfectly,” whatever that means. There are jobs, other kids to care for, housework to do, bills to pay. Most parents do the best they can with the hand they are dealt, and still those insecurities about being a good parent persist.

That’s why it strikes fear into the heart of a parent involved in a child custody case to hear the other parent threaten, “I’ll tell the court you’re an unfit parent!” What exactly does that mean, and what should you do if your partner or ex-partner accuses you of being an unfit parent?

What Does it Really Mean to Be “Unfit?”

To understand what it really means to be an “unfit parent,” let’s go to the source: the Minnesota “best interest factors.” Minnesota courts must consider all of these factors when determining the custody arrangement that would be best for a child.

Since parents with substance abuse or mental health challenges are especially vulnerable to threats of being accused to be an unfit parent in court, let’s take a look at what the law has to say about it. Minnesota Statutes Section 518.17(1)(a)(5) says that a court making a custody decision must consider (among other factors): “any physical, mental, or chemical health issue of a parent that affects the child's safety or developmental needs.” (Emphasis added.)

What that means is that having a history of substance abuse, mental illness, or physical illness does not make you an unfit parent. Neither does admitting these struggles, especially if that means you are getting the help you need. As long as your physical, chemical, or mental health issue is not preventing you from giving your child the love and supervision they need and taking care of their other basic needs, the court will not hold it against you.

A recent case of which we are aware involved a mother who had had a recent history of substance abuse. However, she sought and received treatment and was in recovery. Her ex-husband tried to get custody, accusing the mother of being an unfit parent. Unfortunately, the ex-husband’s new spouse physically abused the child. The court recognized that it was better for the child to be with the mother, who was actively taking steps to be a healthy parent and overcome her past challenges.

Why Calling Someone an Unfit Parent is not an Effective Threat

Most of us realize on some level that letting a child have Pop Tarts for breakfast instead of oatmeal once in a while isn’t going to tip us over into the “unfit” category. But there are parents who have genuine struggles, like a history of substance abuse or mental health issues, that they legitimately fear their co-parent will successfully use against them in court. That’s especially true in the age of social media, when everyone has cameras in their pockets. It’s reasonable to fear that a picture or video taken at the wrong time or presented out of context will make you look like a bad parent.

Either parent can hurl accusations of unfitness at the other, but often, it is a father who threatens to accuse a mother of being unfit. Here is a scenario we often encounter: the mother’s primary concern in the case is the children. The father knows this, and in order to manipulate the mother and win concessions that he wants, he threatens to jeopardize what the mother cares most about: her ability to raise her children. Mothers are especially vulnerable to this tactic if there are aspects of their past they don’t want paraded before the court.

Threats against mothers often have added weight because of societal expectations that persist about mothers: that they should be constantly focused on their kids, endlessly nurturing, and utterly self-sacrificing. Fair or not, society does not have those same expectations of fathers. So for a woman, the threat of being declared an unfit parent means not only the potential loss of her children, but the societal disapproval that goes with it. In short, this shame often stops mothers from fighting back for fear of being “dragged through the mud.”  What you need to know is that if you are a parent who has been accused by a spouse of being unfit, these accusations rarely are found to be sufficient to deny you custody or even limit your parenting time.

It’s not that mothers never make false accusations against fathers to gain an advantage in custody matters; it’s just that a threat of unfitness tends to be especially effective against a mother for the reasons above.

More on Minnesota Law and Parental Unfitness

The best interest statute referenced above also states that “the court must consider all relevant factors.” The court is not permitted to focus on one factor to the exclusion of all others. The statute also specifically states that “the court shall not consider conduct of a party that does not affect the party's relationship with the child,” further reinforcing that a parent’s struggles or flaws shouldn’t determine custody if they don’t affect the relationship between parent and child.

What’s more, if either parent requests joint custody, there is a rebuttable presumption that joint legal custody is in the best interest of the child. That means if one parent tries to prevent the other parent from having joint legal custody, it will be their burden to prove that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child. The parent cannot just make an accusation of unfitness and expect that it will stick.

If you are a parent who is worried that the other parent will take away your child because you are “unfit,” you don’t have to give in to threats or accusations. Consult an experienced Minnesota child custody attorney to discuss your options. You don’t have to be a perfect parent to be a fit one. We will do everything in our power to help make sure your relationship with your child continues to be a strong one. Please contact Mundahl Law to schedule a consultation.