When Does A Parent Become An Unfit Parent?

At what point does a parent become unfit to parent and maintain custody of their child(ren)? A recent decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court highlighted some of the trouble spots that a judge considers when determining whether to adjudicate a parent unfit.

In Care and Protection of Vick, Mass. App. Ct. No. 15‑P‑1451 (July 13, 2016), the trial court was presented with evidence about the condition of a mother’s home, the lack of food available and the exposure of the child to drug abuse. The Department of Children & Families (“DCF”) became involved, and the mother made it difficult for DCF to access her home, for purposes of inspection, including sending the social worker to an address in another town, where the social worker found an abandoned structure.

Parental unfitness is determined by considering a parent’s character, temperament, conduct, and capacity to provide for the child’s particular needs, affections, and age. Adoption of Mary, 414 Mass. 705, 711 (1993). This can also include “evidence of parents’ refusal to cooperate with [DCF], including failure to maintain service plans. Adoption of Rhona, 63 Mass. App. Ct. 117, 126 (2005). The cleanliness of a parent’s home is [also] an appropriate factor for consideration in determination of [a] parent’s fitness. See Care & Protection of Tree Minors, 392 Mass. 704, 713 & n.11 (1984).

In Vick, the home was visited by DCF workers, police officers, a probation officer and a judge. On initial and subsequent visits, the home was found to be in a “deplorable” condition, with dirty rugs, a blackened stove, and a toilet dirty with brown water. The home was also found to have no heat, minimal lighting, a strong smell of animals and cigarettes and piles of trash and dirt on the floor.

Bear in mind that poverty alone cannot support a finding of unfitness. See Custody of a Minor, 389 Mass. 755, 766 (1983). But poverty was not the cause of the conditions in the home, nor did poverty contribute to mother’s unwillingness to cooperate with DCF; besides which, the mother was found to have income which exceeded the threshold for indigency in the Commonwealth. Indeed, it was “mother’s utter failure to accept services, the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the home, and her lack of judgment concerning the child’s needs” which ultimately led to the “determination of unfitness.”

Who do you know that’s concerned about someone’s parental fitness? The attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. are experienced and knowledgeable family litigators and mediators. Contact them today for help making a wise legal choice that is right for you.


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