Substance Abuse And Its Influence On Child Custody Decisions

Man with bottle of alcohol and pills upset over child custody decisions based on his substance abuse

Substance Abuse And Its Influence On Child Custody Decisions

During divorce or child custody cases, a judge determines a child’s living arrangements based on what is most beneficial for the child. State laws govern how courts make these determinations, and substance misuse by one or both parents will typically have an impact. If you have concerns about substance abuse and how it can influence child custody decisions, consider exploring your legal options by calling (480) 719-2558 to speak with an Arizona family law attorney from the Sullivan Law Office.

What Is Substance Abuse?

According to the Youth.gov, substance misuse is the injurious pattern of ingesting substances, such as alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or tobacco, which results in distress or impairment. Substance misuse may be characterized by some or all of the following behaviors:

  • Frequently misusing substances in physically dangerous scenarios, such as driving while under the influence
  • Recurring substance-linked legal issues, including being arrested for substance-related disorderly conduct
  • Failing to carry out major home or work responsibilities as a result of substance misuse
  • Continuing to abuse substances irrespective of persistent personal or social problems created or exacerbated by the substance misuse

Child Custody Decisions Explained

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), child custody refers to the duty and right to provide daily care for a child and make crucial decisions regarding the child. The term custody can encompass the decision-making component (known as legal custody), the caring aspect, which also determines where the child lives (referred to as physical custody), or both. Parents can have sole physical or legal custody or share the role jointly with the other parent.

In an ideal scenario, parents agree on the visitation and custody terms, outlining them in a written agreement and including precise points to make these terms easier to enforce. That said, parents sometimes cannot reach an agreement, and the court must determine the visitation and child custody issues. These decisions may be made during the divorce proceedings, but also in these situations:

  • When unmarried parents want to resolve a legal dispute concerning child custody
  • When unmarried or divorced parents seek to alter an existing custody order
  • When child protection agencies file a petition based on child neglect or abuse allegations

When Does Substance Misuse Impact Custody Decisions?

Family court judges typically try to make custody decisions that preserve the relationships between the child and each parent. This is usually the most beneficial to the child, unless proximity to one parent could cause harm to the child. State laws specify factors for judges to take into account when making custody determinations that would benefit the child the most. In Arizona, there is a presumption that giving joint or sole legal custody to a parent with recent (within the previous 12 months) substance misuse issues, such as a DUI or drug offense conviction, would not be beneficial to the child. However, an exception may be allowed if that parent can show that they have had no other drug offense convictions in the previous five years, or clear random drug testing for a six-month period.

Even when a state’s child custody laws do not specifically address a parent’s substance misuse, the court may still determine that spending extensive time with a parent engaged in substance abuse is not beneficial for the child’s emotional well-being and physical safety. Although the court is likely to consider evidence of habitual and excessive drinking and illegal drug use, the judge may not necessarily remove all visitation and custodial rights. Instead, family court judges typically try to maintain these rights while introducing safeguards for the children, such as supervised visits. Learn more about substance abuse and how it affects child custody decisions by consulting with an Arizona family law attorney with the Sullivan Law Office.

Losing Custody as a Result of Substance Misuse

In addition to impacting custody decisions following a divorce, substance misuse can also affect current custody orders. If one parent with visitation or custody rights believes that the other is misusing substances in a manner that could jeopardize the child’s safety, that parent could ask the court to modify the custody order. Such a motion will need to explain that:

  • The circumstances surrounding the current custody order have significantly changed
  • The requested change is beneficial to the child
  • The substance misuse is potentially harmful to the child

If the provided evidence persuades the court to modify the custody order, the judge issue an order to effect any of the following:

  • Remove the parent’s sole or joint legal custodial rights (in cases where the substance misuse impairs the parent’s ability to make decisions)
  • Introduce visitation restrictions
  • Limit the amount of time that the parent with the substance misuse issue can spend with the child
  • Change who has physical custody of the child

What Are Three Factors That Would Be Taken Into Consideration in a Child Custody Case?

Several factors can influence a court’s decision in child custody cases. Here are three examples:

  • Preferences of the child: Occasionally, the court may consider where the child wishes to live when determining physical custody, particularly if the child is close to becoming an adult.
  • Mental and physical health of the parents: If one parent has a severe physical or mental ailment that could impact their ability to effectively care for the child, a judge may not rule in favor of that parent.
  • Work obligations: The court takes into account a parent’s ability to financially care for the child in addition to the ability to meet the child’s development and psychological requirements by being present at home.

Proving Substance Misuse in a Custody Case

Parents who want to reduce a former partner’s visitation time due to substance misuse will typically need to provide the following evidence:

  • Law enforcement records, such as convictions for the possession or use of illegal drugs, driving while under the influence, or disorderly conduct
  • Witness testimonies of those who have seen the parent’s substance usage
  • Social media content, voicemails, or texts showcasing substance misuse
  • Custody evaluations demonstrating the parent’s substance use
  • Drug test results

If you have been accused by your coparent of substance misuse, consider disproving the allegations by taking a voluntary drug test. Parents who have lost their visitation or custody rights due to substance misuse could agree to frequent drug tests or alcohol monitoring to demonstrate their recovery. The judge may set a defined length of time for which the parent must remain sober and clean before he or she can increase visitation time or regain additional custodial rights.

Contact an Arizona Family Law Attorney Today

Many parents can make parenting agreements that determine custody without involving the court system, either through mediation or independent negotiations. However, one parent may have concerns about their child’s safety because of the other parent’s alcohol or substance use. Another parent could lose parenting time or custody as a result of substance misuse allegations. These parents may want to seek legal advice to help them understand the laws applicable to their situation, to assist in collecting evidence, and to safeguard their children and their parental rights. To learn more about substance abuse and its influence on child custody decisions, consider contacting an Arizona family law attorney with the Sullivan Law Office by calling (480) 719-2558 to schedule a consultation today.