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.