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Who Has Standing to Apply for Custody in NC: Part 2, Unfitness of Parents

By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

As contentious custody cases in the Piedmont progress, it is likely that a parent may be called “unfit.” In a legal context, this word has a specific meaning, and drastic consequences should the court find a parent unfit. In this second installment on standing to apply for custody, we will examine how a parent’s rights are affected when there is an allegation of “unfitness.”

The case of Raynor v. Odom is instructive when trying to determine whether a parent is “unfit.” Raynor v. Odom, 478 S.E.2d 655 (N.C. App. 1996). Raynor was decided several years after Petersen and discusses what analysis the Court should undertake when determining unfitness. The Raynor court held that although there is no specific list of findings that determines a parent is unfit, the court must look at the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a parent can care for the needs of their child.

The minor child in the Raynor case was removed from Plaintiff Mother’s care and temporarily placed with Intervenor Foster. When Foster gained temporary custody, she took the minor child to have a pre-school assessment. At the assessment, it was discovered that the child had an articulation disorder, and was not as advanced or matured as many of the child’s contemporaries.  This fact was supported by the preschool screening report, an articulation evaluation, and a language therapy initial treatment plan. The trial court found that the child’s lack of development was a result of Plaintiff Mother not providing motivation, opportunity, or encouragement for the child’s normal and healthy development.

The trial court went on to catalog facts that demonstrated Plaintiff Mother’s unfitness to care for her child, including:

  • Plaintiff Mother’s DWI convictions;
  • Failure to submit to substance abuse counseling and drug screenings;
  • Failure to submit to a home study;
  • Failure to release her medical and military records;
  • Being found in contempt of court multiple times for failing to follow the court’s orders;
  • Suffering from blackouts and “flying off the handle”;
  • failure to visit the child and disinterest in the child’s wellbeing;
  • Open hostility and rudeness to Intervenor Foster; and
  • Failure to provide information regarding the child’s medical insurance.
  • The Court was concerned that Plaintiff Mother’s lack of respect for authority would transfer to the child, and alarmed that Plaintiff Mother either willfully ignored or could not recognize the developmental needs of the child.

The Appellate Court concluded that these facts demonstrated that Plaintiff Mother had substance abuse problems, did not respect the trial court’s authority, and did not acknowledge the child’s developmental issues. These facts indicated to the Court that Plaintiff Mother was unable to care for the child’s welfare and warranted finding Plaintiff Mother to be “unfit.” The Court ultimately granted primary custody of the child to Intervenor Foster based on Plaintiff Mother being an unfit parent.

Ultimately, each case for parental “unfitness” will be fact specific but what the Raynor case demonstrates are facts that can help lead to a finding of unfitness. Facts the court can use to find “unfitness” includes substance abuse problems of the parent, undiagnosed and untreated medical or developmental issues of the child, failure of the parent to cooperate with the Court, disinterest in the child’s wellbeing, and behaviors that are detrimental to the welfare of the child.

In the next part of our series, we will begin to explore the rights of 3rd parties and who may seek custody in North Carolina when a parent has acted inconsistently with their constitutional rights.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4