How might a mother lose custody of her child?

Learn what factors can cause a mother to lose custody of her child, and how an attorney can help.

mother bent over tying her child's shoe wearing a big floppy hat outside.

What's Inside

What's Inside

If you’re locked in a custody battle or worried about losing custody of your child, take heart. When a court decides on a child custody case, its goal is to create a long-term situation that is stable, supportive and in the child’s best interest. 

To do that, the court takes into account things like parental wishes, skills, health and well-being, as well as a child’s unique needs and wants (provided they’re old enough to form an opinion). In addition, the court considers a child’s existing relationships with siblings and other community members, how closely the parents live to one another, how well the parents get along and where the child should attend school.

Usually judges order a custody arrangement designed to encourage healthy co-parenting and give children appropriate access to a caring relationship with each of their parents.

In some circumstances, though, the court may give one parent sole custody of a child. It’s a common misconception that courts favor the mother no matter the situation. Many states have laws prohibiting judges from taking gender into account when deciding who should have custody of a child. So if a mother neglects her responsibilities, she can lose custody just as readily as a father can. 

Here we’ll discuss the reasons a mother may lose custody of her child, as well as when child custody orders can be modified, so that you can better prepare for your case.

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The top reasons a mother can lose a custody battle

It’s heart-wrenching when a parent loses custody of their child. Laws vary state by state, but most specify a limited number of situations that can lead a mother to lose custody in order to keep the child safe.

Physical abuse of a child

When a child suffers physical abuse at the hands of their mother, the court may take them away from her. Physical abuse is any action that causes intentional bodily injury. That means that if a child is slapped, choked, kicked, shoved, drugged or inappropriately restrained, the court may modify a custody arrangement to limit or restrict the abusive parent’s access to their child. Sexual abuse—considered any sexual activity with a minor—can be grounds for termination of parental rights. 

Sometimes, the court will allow parents who’ve committed abuse to maintain contact with their child but may limit their relationship to “supervised visitations”. Under that arrangement, the parent is only legally allowed to interact with their child under the watch of a responsible family member, friend or trained professional. 

In extreme cases of abuse, when the court believes a relationship with a parent is more harmful than good, they may remove a child from the custody of an offending parent and place them into a safer environment, with either the other parent, extended relatives or court-appointed guardians.

Physical abuse of the other parent

The courts agree that being exposed to familial violence isn’t in the best interests of a child. If a child witnesses their mother hitting, slapping, choking or threatening their partner or ex, the courts will consider that when deciding where and with whom a child should live.

In most states, when one parent has a history of committing domestic violence, before granting joint or sole custody, the court may require them to attend counseling, substance abuse treatment or parenting classes. The court may also order both parents to limit their interactions and conduct their co-parenting communications and exchanges in a public place or in the presence of a third party to avoid an escalation of violence.

Lying about abuse

Because the courts take allegations of abuse so seriously, it’s vital to prevent false accusations from unfairly influencing a custody decision. In extreme cases, anyone lying about abuse can lose custody or visitation rights, face fines or be charged with a misdemeanor for giving false information to the police.

If you’re accused of abuse that you didn’t commit, work to enhance your credibility in court. Stay honest and consistent in any statements you make, ask witnesses to attest to your character and corroborate your side of the story, and use evidence to expose flaws and inconsistencies in the other side’s story.

Emotional abuse of child

The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children defines emotional abuse as caregiver behavior that conveys children are “worthless, defective, damaged goods, unloved, unwanted, endangered, primarily useful in meeting another’s needs and/or expendable.” 

Any parent who actively inhibits a child’s socialization, makes them feel unsupported or disrespected or is insensitive to a child’s developmental level can damage them. Therefore, the court may decide that it’s in a child’s best interest to have limited or no involvement with a mother with a history of that type of behavior. 

Neglect of child’s needs

Neglect is when a parent doesn’t provide for a child’s needs. For example, they may be unwilling or unable to feed, clothe, or house a child, pay for medical care or keep a child safe and out of harm’s way. In some states, failure to educate a child is also considered neglect. 

When the courts consider whether a parent has neglected a child, they analyze the child’s age and level of maturity, mental and physical ability, and cultural and living environment. Commuting to and from school, being home alone for a reasonable time and other independent activities may be considered appropriate for children of a certain age and inappropriate for others.

If the court finds reason to believe that a mother is neglecting their child, they’ll make arrangements to modify or limit her custodial responsibilities.

Frustration of other parent’s custody

Sometimes, in very contentious co-parenting scenarios, one parent will inappropriately block or prevent a child from visiting the other parent. That is called “frustration of custody” or “frustration of visitation”. It can damage a child’s ability to develop stable, consistent familial relationships. 

In innocent, one-off scenarios like a scheduling mishap, the court is unlikely to intervene. But if a mother routinely denies the other parent their court-ordered access to a child, that parent can contact their family court. The court may decide to re-examine or change a custody arrangement in light of the mother’s inappropriate behavior.

In extreme circumstances, a parent may try to flee with their child to another state, refuse to provide access to the child or keep information about the child’s whereabouts from their co-parent. In those cases, the court may consider a parent’s behavior criminal kidnapping and can penalize them with loss of custody, large fines and jail time. 

Violation of court order

Court orders are official proclamations meant to prohibit certain activities or compel others. They come from judges, which makes them legally binding and means that a person who doesn’t comply with them is in contempt of court. If, for instance, the court orders a mother to follow a specific parenting schedule or parenting plan, and she regularly doesn’t show up for her child or is very late to drop them off or pick them up, she can be found in violation of her court order. 

Courts may punish a parent who violates a court order by fining them, requiring them to attend counseling or community service and ordering them to reimburse the non-offending parent for childcare costs. The court may also modify the order to give the other parent additional time with the child going forward. In extreme cases, violating court orders can lead to imprisonment for contempt.

Mental health issues

The court understands that under most circumstances, a mother with mental illness can still be a healthy, active, responsible participant in their child’s life. If a parent has a condition that is mild or well-managed with therapy and medication, it’s unlikely to keep them from having a custodial relationship with their child. 

When a parent has more severe mental health issues, though, the court will decide whether a child will likely be harmed while in their care and may adjust custody arrangements accordingly. For example, people who experience violent outbursts, display erratic behavior, require frequent hospitalizations or are unable to care for themselves may face limited or restricted custody if the court believes it’s in the child’s best interest.

Drug and alcohol abuse

Substance abuse issues can cloud parental judgment and make them unfit to care for a child’s safety and well-being. If there’s documented evidence that a mother is abusing drugs or alcohol, the court will factor in that information when deciding custody arrangements.

Depending on the severity of a parent’s condition, a court may mandate professional substance abuse treatment and/or consistent drug testing, require that parent-child interactions stay limited to supervised visitation or order a parent to abstain from drugs or alcohol before seeing their child. In extreme circumstances, if a mother has a chronic or debilitating addiction that affects a child’s safety, the court may decline to grant custody or parental rights.

Parental alienation

Parental alienation is when one parent manipulates a child into feeling hostility or resistance to visiting the other parent because of their dissatisfaction or anger toward them. Experts consider it emotional abuse because it can impair a child’s social, cognitive and emotional development.

If a child has a justifiable reason for feeling pessimistic about someone—if a mother abused or neglected them, for instance—the courts don’t consider parental alienation at play. If, however, a child displays views that are both extreme and inconsistent with their lived experience, have no basis in reality or echo an alienating parent, an alienating parent may be at fault.

If parental alienation is suspected, courts will ask a mediator or mental health professional to assess a child and determine whether a parent has groomed them to resent someone. In cases of parental alienation, the court will modify custody arrangements, require individual or family therapy and, in extreme circumstances, impose fines or jail time.

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Failure to commit to parental responsibilities

Every state has a different idea of what makes a parent unfit for child-rearing responsibilities. Still, most agree that long-term abuse, neglect, extreme mental illness or incapacitation, child abandonment, sexual abuse or a failure to support or maintain contact with a child are reasons enough to limit, restrict or, in rare circumstances, terminate custody and parental rights.

Child custody evaluations

When parents are separated and can’t agree on how they’ll share custody responsibilities, a judge can order a custody evaluation to determine a parenting arrangement that’s best for their child’s long-term health and happiness. 

Throughout an evaluation, a trained child custody expert gathers information about each parent and their child(ren). They meet each parent and child individually and also interview teachers, babysitters, friends and relatives. They may look at health records, school files and other evidence to help them form a recommendation. Finally, they complete a report that details their suggestions for custody and visitation schedules, future therapy and substance abuse treatment plans and when the courts should reevaluate an arrangement to ensure that it still meets the child’s best interests.

If you’re concerned about how a child custody evaluator conducts their research, talk to an attorney before they submit their report. If you wait, the judge may think you have qualms with the recommendations, not the evaluator. 

Judges don’t always follow a child custody evaluation report to the letter, but they take the recommendations very seriously when determining the final custody court order.

How to modify child custody orders

Depending on your state, you can file a petition with the court to modify an existing child custody order if you can demonstrate that your circumstances have changed and/or a modification is in the best interest of a child.

Get help with your child custody case

You don’t have to go through a complex child custody case alone. You can contact a family law attorney who can help you make sense of your specific situation, file the proper paperwork and get your family on track to a healthier, more stable arrangement.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

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