Divorces often unleash torrents of intense anger. Most divorcing parents in Texas attempt to shield their children from this tide of emotion, but occasionally one parent will accuse the other of being “unfit” to care for the couple’s children. What is the exact legal meaning of an “unfit parent”? Is it relevant in a child custody dispute?
The term “unfit parent” usually calls forth an image of a physically abusive parent or one who is addicted to drugs or alcohol. In Texas, an unfit parent is generally a person who cannot or will not provide the child with emotional guidance or attend to the child’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and medical care. If the parent’s negligent conduct is deemed to constitute the crime of child neglect, the parent may be subject to incarceration and a possible fine. Even if no criminal charges have been made, a court may terminate the parental rights of the unfit parent. If both parents are unfit, the child may be looked after by a public agency until the child is adopted.
A proven charge of being an unfit parent is serious in Texas, but proving unfitness is not usually a part of custody determinations in divorce cases. The general rule is that the court will grant custody to the parent who is better able to serve the child’s best interests. Most Texas judges and divorce attorneys understand that custody is not a competition between the parents to predict which of them will be the better parent after the divorce. Rather, the court looks at the present situation and determines custody based upon which parent is providing or able to provide care that will better serve the best interests of the child.