What Makes a Parent Unfit in California?

16Nov, 22

When two parents cannot effectively raise their child or children together, they must create a parenting plan that outlines how the parents will divide both physical custody (where the children will live) and legal custody (who will make decisions for the children). The plan must then be approved by a judge.

In most cases, the court prefers arrangements created with the help of a Riverside child custody attorney that allows both parents to participate in the upbringing of the children. However, this decision must be made with the best interests of the child or children in mind — and in some situations, a parent may be deemed unfit.


What Makes a Parent Unfit?

An unfit parent may negatively impact the emotional and physical health or the development of the child. Each state creates its own criteria for determining whether a parent is unfit. A judge also does have some discretion when it comes to interpreting those criteria and whether they apply to the parent in question.

In California, the courts look at the following criteria to determine whether a parent is unfit.

The Presence of Child Abuse or Neglect

The court considers whether the parent has a history of physically, sexually, verbally, or emotionally abusing the child. Proof of this abuse and the current situation is evaluated to determine the fitness of the parent. Evidence of child neglect may also indicate that a parent is unfit.

The Presence of Domestic Abuse

If the parent has committed any form of domestic abuse, whether now or in the past, they may be deemed unfit. The court also looks at the severity of the abuse as well as whether the child witnessed it.

The Presence of Substance Abuse

Since the use of alcohol, street drugs, or prescription medication does not always make a parent unfit, the court must find that the substance abuse is negatively affecting the child. The court may either restrict the parent from interacting with their child while using the substance, or it may declare the parent unfit.

The Presence of a Mental Health Disorder

Certain mental health disorders may pose a risk to children in the home, especially if they are left untreated. If the disorder leads to unsafe conditions in the home and the parent refuses to accept treatment, they may be deemed unfit. However, mental health disorders do not always lead to a parent being declared unfit, and proof is essential in this situation. The other parent must provide evidence the disorder negatively affects the child and that the parent with the mental health disorder isn’t receiving proper treatment.

Relationship With the Child

If the parent has had no past involvement in the child’s life and is not able to prove they will begin meaningful interaction in the future, they may be determined unfit. Similarly, if a violent, explosive, or otherwise extremely negative relationship unfolded in the past, the court may determine it is in the best interests of the child not to continue that relationship.

Inability to Provide Resources or Financial Support

While a recent job loss or other change in financial status should not result in a parent being declared unfit, homelessness or other severe financial issues may impact the court’s decision. In general, if a parent is homeless for an extended period and cannot provide basic resources for their child or children, the court may award custody to the stable parent.


A history of incarceration does not automatically make a parent unfit in California. The court will review the reasons for incarceration, though, and if they include domestic violence or child abuse, an unfit determination is more likely. If a parent is currently incarcerated, they must consult with the court to determine whether child support, visitation, and other court orders are necessary.


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

A: Most instances that lead to a parent being declared unfit in California stem from child or domestic abuse, issues with substance abuse, or severe mental illness. Documents like police reports, previous protective orders, court orders, and CPS reports can all provide proof the abuse occurred. With substance abuse or severe mental illness, a Riverside child custody lawyer must provide similar court evidence or medical evidence the issue exists and presents an unsafe environment for the child.

Q: What Shows a Parent Is Unfit?

A: Police documentation, court records, and medical evidence can show a parent is unfit and risks causing physical, emotional, or developmental damage to the child. In general, an attorney must show that a parent’s behavior or a record thereof demonstrates that they are incapable of providing resources, support, guidance, and care.

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

A: Instability may refer to the physical condition of the home, the financial capabilities of the parents, the emotional state of the parents, and the social stability of the home. Physical instability may mean the home is physically damaged and does not provide resources like heat, water, and protection from the elements. The children might also be in physical danger due to a parent or another occupant. Financial instability may mean the child does not have shelter, essential utilities, clothing, or food. Emotional instability can occur when parents neglect or emotionally abuse one another or the children in the house. Social instability occurs when parents fail to teach their children essential social cues necessary for survival at school and in the world.

Q: What is Child Neglect in California?

A: In California, child neglect most often pertains to a situation where the parent failed to provide physical resources like food, clothing, utilities, and shelter. However, neglect can also stem from a parent not providing intangible resources like adequate supervision and safety. Severe child neglect can cause life-threatening issues like malnutrition and exposure to the elements.

Our Riverside Child Custody Attorneys Can Help

Whether you are facing a review of your parenting abilities caused by false allegations that you are an unfit parent or believe your child’s other parent is unfit, the Law Offices of Michelanne Hrubic can help. Our skilled team is well-versed in the types of evidence needed to prove a parent is unfit in California court, and we can work closely with you to build a successful child custody case. Reach out to schedule a consultation today.

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