How Parents Can Lose Child Custody Over Substance Abuse

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Worried about your former spouse's drug or alcohol use around your children? Substance use is a real issue that many adults struggle with. But when, exactly, do the courts get involved, and what can you do, as a concerned parent, to protect your children while still adhering to a court-ordered visitation and child custody schedule?

When Courts Typically Get Involved

Courts generally respond to a parent's substance use either during a child custody hearing or when complaints about suspected substance use—and its impact on the children—are reported either to the court that issued the child custody order or to the state (through the Department of Child Protective Services).

How the Courts Respond to Parental Substance Use

Courts take action when substance use, in the form of alcohol and illicit drugs, and/or misuse of prescription drugs actually hinders a parent’s ability to care for their children or when the parent poses a danger to the children's well-being.

If the issue is raised during a child custody hearing, the judge will likely order an investigation of the matter to determine whether the allegations are true, and if so, whether the parent’s alcohol or drug use impacts their ability to properly care for the children. In all 50 states, the best interest of the child standard is used to determine child custody.

This standard takes each party's general parenting fitness—including alcohol and/or drug use—into account. In addition, if there is a documented history of past substance use, the judge may consider a parent's actions during that time period as well before making a custody determination.

But let's say that custody has already been determined. How, then, might the courts respond to complaints about substance use? If the courts determine that the complaints are valid, the judge may restrict the parent’s contact with the children by altering the visitation and/or custody arrangement.

In certain cases, the judge may also order that a noncustodial parent’s visitation is supervised to ensure that the parent visits the child in a safe and controlled setting. Sometimes, a court-appointed social worker or family member supervises these types of sessions.

In addition, the judge may require that the visitation remain supervised until the parent can demonstrate that there has been a change in circumstances or the parent takes part in a substance use counseling or rehabilitation program.

How to Handle Your Concerns

If you are concerned about your former spouse's alcohol or drug use, you can raise this issue with the court and take steps to document any incidents that support your concerns. This might include police reports, DUI charges, or similar evidence. It’s important to have a record not only of the other parent’s substance use but also documents that indicate the substance use renders the parent unsuitable.

If you are concerned about your child’s safety, you may want to file for a restraining order or refuse visitation with the other parent. Fear of imminent harm to your child is a valid reason to refuse visitation and will demonstrate your legitimate cause for concern to the judge.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smith VC, Wilson CR. Families affected by parental substance use. Pediatrics. 2016;138(2):e20161575. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1575

  2. Henry C, Liner-Jigamian N, Carnochan S, Taylor S, Austin MJ. Parental substance use: how child welfare workers make the case for court intervention. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2018;93:69-78. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.07.003

  3. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Determining the Best Interests of the Child.

  4. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Guidance to States: Recommendations for Developing Family Drug Court Guidelines.

  5. Texas Legal Services Center. Coronavirus and child visitation.

By Jennifer Wolf
Jennifer Wolf is a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads.