How to Prove You’re a Fit Parent in Court in NJ?
There is little more insulting and alarming than having your parental rights threatened via allegations that you are an unfit parent. If your former spouse or another party tries to take away your custody rights by claiming that you pose a danger to your kids, what can you do? Continue reading to learn how New Jersey deals with allegations concerning parental fitness, and call a seasoned New Jersey child custody and parenting time attorney for help with a New Jersey family law matter.
When Does Parental Fitness Come Into Play?
Typically, the state stays away from asking how people raise their children. The government will only get involved in the parental relationship if they have been alerted to concerns about the fitness of a parent or if the state is already reviewing the parental relationship in, for example, a child custody dispute.
When parties are going through a divorce or are otherwise engaged in a custody battle, the court’s primary concern is the best interests of the child. New Jersey courts presume that children benefit the most from continued contact with both parents. They will only strip one parent of their parental rights if allegations concerning that parent’s fitness are raised in the dispute, typically by the other parent. The court will generally not take it upon itself to question the parents’ fitness to raise children, focusing instead on other factors.
Parental fitness may also be called into question whenever an interested party is attempting to remove children from the custody of their parents. For example, if the child’s grandparents believe that neither parent is fit to raise the kids safely and securely, they might petition the court to remove the children from their parents’ custody.
It’s About Proving You’re Not “Unfit”
New Jersey courts assume parents are fit until given reason to believe otherwise. Alleging that a parent is unfit means alleging that the parent is not capable of providing a nurturing and safe environment for the child, such that leaving the child in the care of that parent puts the child at significant emotional and/or physical risk. Typically, unfitness is demonstrated by showing the parent would provide an unsafe environment for the child, often due to one or more of:
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- A history of criminal behavior
- A history of spousal or child abuse
- A history of neglect or abandonment
- Anger management problems
- Lack of mental capacity due to injury, illness, or disability
Proving a parent is unfit is typically accomplished by showing objective evidence that the child would be in danger if left with that parent. Evidence might include criminal convictions; prior restraining orders; medical records showing abuse; school records showing truancy or poor grades; testimony from social workers, family, friends, teachers, physicians or other parties; abusive communications (voicemails, emails, text messages); failed drug screenings; and other evidence of danger, neglect, or abuse.
If a parent is accused of being unfit, they can defend themselves by either pointing out a lack of objective evidence showing they are unfit or by presenting affirmative evidence of their fitness. A parent accused of alcohol or substance abuse might, for example, consent to drug testing or substance abuse counseling. They might present school records showing how well the children are performing in school and extracurriculars while under that parent’s care. They might counter with texts, emails, or voicemails in which the other parent threatens to lie about abuse, criminal activity, or drug addiction in order to win custody.
Anything that can be used either to undermine the other parent’s allegations or affirmatively provide that they are a good parent can be used. If the other parent’s allegations are proven to lack foundation, the court is unlikely to continue to entertain allegations of lack of fitness and will instead look to the other “best interest” factors to establish custody.
If you’re facing child custody matters or considering divorce in New Jersey, contact the experienced and dedicated Union family law attorney John B. D’Alessandro for a consultation.