Parents Who Use Drugs and Their Parental Rights
10 September 2015IN: Family Law
Millions of parents in America use illegal drugs or abuse alcohol
Illicit use or abuse of drugs ruins the lives of adults on a daily basis. Among adults aged 26 or older, 7.3 percent use illegal drugs and 5.6 percent smoke marijuana. Over 10 percent of Americans of parenting age heavily abuse alcohol.
Drug abuse doesn’t just destroy the lives of the user. It ruins the lives of spouses and children. Therefore, the law has several provisions to try and minimize the devastation that an addicted parent can cause.
Parents that abuse drugs can lose custody of their children. Under Tennessee law, parental rights (including custody) can be terminated if illegal drug use or alcohol use has led to the following: (1) the court has previously removed the child from the parent’s home for six or months; (2) if the child were returned to the home, there’s a reasonable probability that the child could be abused or suffer neglect; (3) there is little likelihood the parent can stop abusing drugs; and (4) the continuation of a relationship between the parent and child diminishes the child’s chances to have a safe and stable home.
A parent’s drug abuse can lead to loss of other rights as well. For example, if a married couple with a child decides to divorce, the law generally requires that the parents retain joint custody of the child. However, there are two provisions that could result in sole custody being awarded to the parent without a drug problem. Both provisions revolve around the fundamental policy that child custody determinations are based on the best interest of the child.
First, sole custody to the parent without a drug problem is possible if the court finds there is clear and convincing evidence that this arrangement would be in the child’s best interest. In making this determination, the court considers relevant information and even orders investigations. So if one of the parents has a drug problem, the court could investigate and determine that the addiction is severe enough to award sole custody to the parent without a drug problem.
Second, when determining what custody arrangements are in the best interest of the child, the court is directed to consider several factors to determine whether no custody or limited custody is appropriate for the parent with the drug problem. These factors include:
- State of love and affection between child and parents
- Ability of parents to provide food, medical care, and education to child
- Maintaining a stable environment
- Stability of the family unit
- Physical and mental health of the parents
- Child’s record in school and the community
- The reasonable preference of the child, is 12 or older
A parent with a drug problem could sway any of these factors towards a determination of no custody. For example, drug abuse can affect the state of affection the parent shows to the child. It can certainly impact the parent’s ability to keep a job so that food, medical care, and education is provided. Drug abuse can also impact a child’s stable home or family unit.
However, the most relevant factor in this analysis is the “physical and mental health” of the parents. It is certainly foreseeable that a parent with an addiction to illegal drugs or alcohol could suffer physical harm and the degradation of mental abilities.
Tennessee law has fundamental respect for the privilege that both married couples and divorced parents retain custody of their children. However, when a parent uses illegal drugs or is addicted to alcohol, the best interests of the child may result in loss of this privilege.