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How Is Parental Unfitness Determined in Maryland?

How Is Parental Unfitness Determined in Maryland?Photo from Unsplash

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As a parent in Maryland, the law recognizes your right to spend time with your children and participate in their upbringing. This right does not disappear just because you divorce or separate from the child’s other parent. Even if you are not the custodial parent following the divorce or separation, your parental rights remain intact.

These rights are durable but not impervious. A Maryland court that finds you are an unfit parent can strip you of these rights. This would deprive you of the ability to see your child and play a role in major life decisions. Your relationship with your child can suffer tremendous harm if you are cut off from them in this manner.

Parental Unfitness Explained

Unfit parents are those whose actions and choices place their children at a significant risk of injury or death. Examples of the types of behaviors that lead to a finding of unfitness include parents who leave their kids unsupervised for long periods of time, are abusive, or fail to provide for their children’s basic needs.

When a parent is found to be unfit, the court may choose to terminate or suspend the unfit parent’s rights to the child. Specifically, the rights to visit with the child and to be involved in important life decisions of the child are taken away, leaving the other parent or legal guardian as the sole individual to exercise these rights.

How Maryland Courts Find Parents to Be Unfit

The process of finding a parent unfit begins with the filing of a petition with the court. You can file such a petition, as can certain friends or family members concerned about the child’s welfare. Finally, state authorities in Maryland can also allege child abuse or neglect and bring a petition to find one or both parents unfit.

At the trial, the court will consider all relevant evidence you and other parties present. This can include:

  • Police reports documenting law enforcement contacts with a prosecutor
  • Medical reports from hospitals and doctors
  • Psychological reports and mental health records from treatment providers
  • Any other report, document, or resource that sheds light on the parent’s abilities

Witnesses who can substantiate the allegations or conclusions found in written reports may also testify. 

Finally, the court may appoint an individual to conduct an independent investigation into a parent’s fitness and report back to the court. This individual may also testify at the hearing to determine the parent’s fitness.

Standard for Best Interests of the Child

As is true with almost every other family law decision, the court’s determination that a parent is unfit is made based on what is in the child’s best interests

Even if one parent has committed questionable acts while exercising visitation with the child, a court will still hesitate to suspend or terminate that parent’s rights unless doing so is necessary to protect the child’s physical, mental, or emotional well-being.

Determining what is in a child’s best interests is a fact-intensive inquiry, requiring the court to look at various facets of the child’s life. Some of these factors include:

  • Whether the allegedly unfit parent is the primary caregiver
  • How strong the evidence of abuse or neglect against the parent is
  • If one or both parents allow the child to speak with other family members
  • Views and opinions expressed by the child 

There are other factors that a court can consider if the court believes doing so would help clarify what would best promote the child’s overall well-being.

Reversing a Finding of Unfitness

Depending on the orders entered by the court, a finding of unfitness and the associated limitations on parental rights may be reversible. If the court permanently severs a parent’s rights, then reversing that decision will be challenging. However, other temporary suspensions and limitations may be more easily lifted as the unfit parent’s situation changes.

For example, a parent whose visitation and other parental rights are suspended may later demonstrate to the court that their situation has changed. Perhaps the parent has obtained mental health treatment or made other modifications to their living arrangements. 

It is likely that the court would gradually ease any limitations it placed on the parent’s rights rather than lifting those restrictions all at once.

Contact Blattner Family Law Group for Further Assistance

A finding of unfitness is a serious matter, and the procedures the court follows before making such a determination are critical for both parents. Blattner Family Law Group and our skilled family law attorneys are capable of effectively representing parties in such proceedings. We will protect your rights and the well-being of your child. 

Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

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