Grandparents seeking child custody in Ohio

Grandparents Series #1

The First Obstacle: Unfit to raise your own child.

Parents have powerful rights under the U.S. Constitution and the Courts are charged with protecting those rights.  In Ohio, unless a Court finds that a parent is   “unsuitable,” or “unfit,” a parent will keep custody unless he or she voluntarily gives custody to a grandparent.  Every Ohio grandparent seeking custody without the agreement of the parents must prove to the Court that the parents are unfit.

What makes a parent unfit?  Poor parents are not unfit, provided they can provide basic food and shelter and otherwise keep the child alive.  Ohio law prevents a Court from discriminating against parents who can’t afford luxuries for their child. The Court cannot hold it against a parent if they receive assistance, cash support, or welfare, or if they work a dead-end job, or even refuse to work at all. Similarly, emotional abuse such as favoring one child over another, or cruel and nasty comments to a child, or undermining a child’s self-esteem, does not make the parent unfit.

Other lifestyle choices, such as promiscuity, multiple children with different partners, or just plain bad decision making do not make a parent unfit.  A parent has the prerogative to waste their money in bars instead of paying for violin lessons or sports.  Unless a child is medically malnourished, a parent can feed her child a vegan diet, or just French fries and Mountain Dew or anything in between. As long as a parent complies with truancy laws, homeschooling a child, or not valuing education, does not make a parent unfit.   Decisions about religion or politics are entirely up to the parents.  Allowing a child to watch violent movies, or stay up past midnight on a school night, or skimping on baths or clean underwear will not make a parent unfit. A parent can allow a child to get a tattoo or ride an ATV and still be fit.

What will make a parent unfit is causing serious and direct harm to the child.  Drug and alcohol dependency are the most common reasons a parent is deemed unfit.  A parent who physically abuses a child may or may not be unfit, depending upon the circumstances and the parent’s willingness to get help.  Sexual abuse committed by a parent against a child is likely to cause the parent to be unfit, but sexual abuse by another person, provided the parent is not aware of the abuse, probably will not.

A parent who is unavailable to the child because she is facing a prison sentence is probably unfit.  A parent deployed on active duty military missions is not unfit.  A parent who is mentally ill, and whose mental illness affects the child, can be unfit.

A showing of unfitness is the first obstacle for a grandparent to take custody of a child from the parents.  Most of the grandparent custody cases that fail, fail because the parent is not unfit.  It is not enough that the child would have a better upbringing with a grandparent; the parent must be defective in a serious way.

The bitter reality is that very bad parents can still be legally fit.