What makes a parent unfit in California?

California law has specific regulations and rules to evaluate if a parent is unfit to continue their parental role for the safety of a child. Determining whether a parent is unfit involves a number of factors, such as the actions and demeanor of the parent, the status of the home environment, and the parent’s ability to provide care and protection for a child.

To be deemed an unfit parent, Child Welfare Services needs to build a child custody case that confirms circumstances are dangerous or unfit for a child to continue living with a parent.

What Are the Most Common Circumstances for Unfit Parents?

The most common way to prove a parent is unfit is if there is any abuse taking place in the household. This can range from physical harm and violence happening to the child by the parent or an individual the parent has let into the household — for example, someone they are dating. Verbal abuse is also a crime under California law, and threats or other verbal attacks can be considered child abuse.

Domestic violence in the household is a felony under California law, as well as a key factor in determining if a parent is unfit. This is the case even if the domestic violence is directed at someone other than the child, like another parent or grandparent.

Determining if neglect is happening to a child is another way to determine if a parent is unfit. California defines child neglect as the refusal or failure of a parent to ensure their child has access to needed shelter, clothing, and food, as well as proper supervision to protect the child from physical injury. In the most severe cases, neglect could endanger the child’s life due to malnutrition, exposure to the elements, or a parent being absent from the home while the child is in the house.

Unfortunately, some parents may be deemed unfit because of addiction or mental illness. If a parent is unable to remain in proper mind while caring for a child and a mental health episode endangers a child’s life or leads to neglect or abuse, this can deem a parent unfit under California law. Similarly, if a household has illegal drugs or a parent’s addiction to alcohol causes them to abuse or neglect a child, a parent is likely to be seen as unfit. It is possible, however, to contest these charges by finding proper medication in the case of mental illness or seeking rehabilitation in the case of substance abuse.

Finally, if a parent becomes incarcerated, they will typically be considered unfit, as they are no longer able to care for the child due to imprisonment. It is possible for a parent who is leaving jail or prison to be reevaluated, but the individual must build a case proving they have the resources to provide the care their child needs.

How Does a Child Custody Evaluation Work?

If any of the issues mentioned above cause a child custody proceeding, the court or a parent can ask for a child custody evaluation of one or both parents’ fitness in raising a child. This evaluation works to analyze the home environment and determine if the child is at risk in the custody of one or both parents.

A child custody evaluation looks at everything from the parents themselves, their households, as well as their interactions and parenting of their children. There are several factors in this evaluation that could determine who attains final custody.

The evaluation will take note of which parent acts as a primary caretaker for the children, as well as which parent has best attended to the needs of their children and provides a healthy parenting style. The child’s perspective is also considered, as their preference of which parent to live with often indicates which parent is best providing for them.

Typically, this evaluation also favors the more level-headed parent, taking note of their communication skills and conflict resolution capabilities. The child custody evaluation also looks for any signs of domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental illnesses that could act as a danger to the children.

In many child custody evaluations, officials also speak with the child’s therapists, teachers, and other adults who play a role in watching or caring for the children. If both parents prove fitness, it is most likely for both to have joint custody. However, the evaluator’s final analysis and their decision are always made in the best interests of the child and their well-being.


Q: How Do You Prove a Parent Is Unfit in California?

A: To prove a parent is unfit in California, a child custody evaluation must prove a parent has engaged in child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse in the home, is incarcerated, or is too mentally unwell to safely parent.

Q: What Is Considered an Unstable Home for a Child?

A: Any home that does not provide the basic necessities of protection, electricity, heat, water, or even sewer disposal is considered an unstable home for a child. While a home in ill repair can still be considered a stable home for a child, if the child does not have basic protections and survivable necessities in the home, it is considered unstable.

Q: What Is an Unstable Parent?

A: California law defines an unstable parent as an individual whose conduct is unable to offer proper guidance, support, or care to their child. This includes neglect, abuse, substance abuse, and more.

Q: What Do Judges Look for in Child Custody Cases in California?

A: In child custody cases, judges hold the health and safety of the child as the most important factor when determining a fit parent. They also consider any emotional ties between a child and their parent, as well as which parent provides the best parenting style.

Advocate for Your Rights as a Parent

If you are facing a child custody case, you need expert legal help to ensure your children are given the best possible future. For skilled legal representation, contact the Law Offices of Patricia A. Rigdon to see how we can help you advocate for custody.