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Can Substance Abuse Impact Child Custody?

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If you are getting a divorce and you have a spouse who has a substance abuse problem, you are probably worried about them being around your children, especially when you are not there. Substance abuse is a serious issue that affects families from all races, religions, and socioeconomic classes. Like domestic violence, any family can be affected.

Before we discuss how substance abuse can impact child custody in a California divorce, first let’s look at how it can affect parenting. In this government handout, entitled, “The Effects of Substances of Abuse on Behavior and Parenting,” it goes into detail about how alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and pain medications can impact parenting.

Parenting Effects of Alcohol

  • A parent may forget certain parenting responsibilities.
  • A parent may neglect certain parenting responsibilities.
  • A parent could stay out all night long and leave their children alone because they are intoxicated by alcohol.
  • A parent may have episodes of rage and depression, making the environment unstable for their children.

Parenting Effects of Illegal Drugs

  • When a parent is under the influence of cocaine, a child’s crying, which may only be a minor annoyance to a parent who is not using cocaine, may be intense and magnified.
  • A parent who is on cocaine may be angry or extremely impatient with a child for any reason because of the parent’s thought distortions and misperceptions of their child’s intent.
  • If a parent is addicted or crack, they can leave their infant or toddler alone for hours or even days as they are out looking for their next “fix.”
  • It is not uncommon for parents who are addicted to crack to have homes that are barren of furniture and appliances because they sold it all to purchase crack or other drugs.
  • A parent who is addicted to crack may have no food in the refrigerator or cupboards because their drug addiction makes them unable to care for their children’s basic needs.
  • Some drug addicts will do anything to fuel their habit, even if it means hurting their loved ones and endangering their health and wellbeing.
  • Crack can significantly increase sexual abuse against young children.
  • A parent who is on a hallucinogen, such as Ecstasy or LSD can forget or neglect their children. They can leave their children alone while seeking or using the drug, and they may become angry or impatient with their children for no reason.
  • A parent who is under the influence of heroin may “nod out” and be unable to supervise their children while the drug is in their system.
  • A parent who is under the influence of marijuana may fall asleep and not be able to supervise their children.
  • Methamphetamine is a serious issue. It can put children in grave danger in many ways, especially since it can lead to a lack of supervision, child neglect, violence, paranoia, aggression, and severe child abuse.

We are only scratching the surface in regard to the parenting effects of illegal drugs, but the above list does help you better understand the magnitude of the problem.

Parenting Effects of Prescription Drugs

  • When parents are addicted to opioids (prescription pain medications), the parents can neglect their children, leave their children alone while seeking the drugs, they may “nod out” and be unable to supervise their children, and they may expose their children to dangerous situations and dealers.
  • Prescription stimulants can cause the parent to be impatient and irritated with the child, who cannot adapt to the parent’s energy level.
  • If a parent is on a central nervous system depressant, they can neglect their children, leave them alone while obtaining the drug, and the parent can fall asleep when on the drug, and be unable to properly supervise their children.

“Substance use disorders (SUDs) are characterized by recurrent use of alcohol or drugs (or both) that results in problems such as being unable to control use of the substance; failing to meet obligations at work, home, or school; having poor health; and spending an increased amount of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of using the substance. Parent substance use and parent experience of an SUD can have negative effects on children,” ~ Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration.

When Do the Courts Get Involved?

The courts may get involved when a parent’s substance abuse problem (alcohol, drugs, or prescription drugs) gets in the way of their ability to care for their children. Often, the issue will come up during a legal separation, a divorce, or a child custody case. Sometimes though, a third party, such as a teacher, doctor, or neighbor, has made a complaint to the Department of Child Protective Services and that will launch an investigation.

If allegations of substance abuse are raised during a family court case, the judge will likely want to know more. After all, it is in the child’s best interests to find out if the allegations are true, and if so, how the parent’s drug or alcohol abuse is impacting their ability to properly care for their children.

In California and all 50 states, family court judges use “the best interests of the child” standard when making a child custody determination. If a parent has a drug or alcohol problem, the judge should hear about it.

In all child custody cases, however, the judge examines all relevant factors that may affect the child’s wellbeing, including a history of domestic violence, any child neglect, criminal behavior, sexual abuse, abandonment, and any history of substance abuse.

Do You Have a Concern?

If you are worried about the other parent’s drug or alcohol abuse, our advice is to document all incidents that can support your concerns. If you can get your hands on supportive evidence, like arrest records, police reports, criminal convictions, restraining orders, etc., they may prove that the other parent is not safe, that will be very helpful.

If you’re afraid for your children’s safety, you should raise your concerns with a judge immediately, and explain why you have a good reason to deny the other parent visitation.


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