Child custody cases are inherently difficult for parents. Even under the best possible circumstances, a child custody dispute can result in a parent losing time to spend with their child, and the terms of a custody order vary from case to case. Every situation is unique, and every parent faces different challenges in the custody determination process. While some parents must give up some parenting time due to their custody terms, other parents can lose their parental rights in numerous ways.

Custodial parents need to know what can cause them to lose their custody rights. Additionally, all custodial parents need to know how their co-parents’ bad behavior can be appropriately addressed in the family court system. For example, parents could be denied custody during initial custody determinations, or they could lose parental rights later due to criminal actions.

What Does a Custody Determination Involve?

When parents divorce in Missouri, a child custody determination is likely the most challenging aspect of their overall divorce case. The Missouri family court must approve all custody orders issued in the state, ensuring a custody agreement suits the best interests of the child or children it will affect. This can feel disempowering for parents when they realize that the final say regarding custody and support for their children rests in the hands of a judge.

Family court judges ascertain a child’s best interests based on their cost of living and unique needs, such as medical complications or developmental concerns. The court upholds that a child will benefit most from having access to both parents, but a judge will only allow a fit parent to have custody of their child. Parental fitness is determined by many factors, including the overall health of the parent and their perceived ability to handle their child’s basic needs.

If a judge determines that a parent is unfit, they will deny that parent any custody rights and may only allow them to have limited and supervised visitation with the child. This may not be an option for some cases. If a parent is denied parental rights, it is very difficult for them to ever obtain them in the future.

Can a Parent Willingly Give Up Their Parental Rights?

It is possible for a parent to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights. However, this would only nullify the parent’s claim to custody, indicating they do not want anything to do with raising their child. Voluntary termination of parental rights does not release the parent from their child support obligation. Even if a parent voluntarily surrenders their parental rights, they are still responsible for paying child support as dictated by their family court order.

A parent can escape their child support obligation early if a stepparent is willing to legally adopt the child and take financial responsibility for the child’s living expenses. Adoption typically requires the biological parent to be effectively replaced to sign a document indicating the voluntary termination of their claim to custody over a child.

What Is Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights?

Parents can not only surrender parental rights willingly, but they may also have them taken involuntarily in response to certain behaviors. Some of the most commonly cited reasons for parents to lose their custody rights in Missouri are:

  • Domestic violence. If a parent has committed any act of domestic violence, especially against a child, it would be doubtful for any judge to consider them fit for parental rights or custody. As a result, sentencing for domestic violence offenses often includes loss of parental rights.
  • Substance abuse disorders. When a parent struggles with an advanced addiction and has failed or refused to complete rehabilitative treatment, a judge will not permit them any parental rights to avoid health and safety risks they would present to their child. It may be possible for a parent who loses parental rights due to substance abuse to later petition for visitation or limited custody after completing an appropriate treatment program and maintaining sobriety for an extended time.
  • Mental health disorders. If a parent has an advanced mental health condition that prevents handling their child’s day-to-day needs or poses any risks to the child, a judge is unlikely to grant the parent more than limited supervised visitation rights.
  • Criminal conviction. If a parent is convicted of a crime, they could lose custody rights as part of their sentencing. This is most likely to occur if the parent committed a felony, a violent offense, or any criminal act against a child. Parents may also lose custody if they are sentenced to prison for an extended time.

In any situation where a parent has had their parental rights involuntarily terminated, it is doubtful that they will ever regain them in the future. Of course, there are exceptions, but any parent who intends to seek parental rights after losing them will require very reliable and experienced legal counsel to help them navigate their cases.

What Is Contempt of Court?

In some cases, a custodial parent may need to directly demand that the family court remove parental rights from their child’s other parent. A parent may file contempt proceedings whenever a parent has intentionally failed to abide by the terms of their family court order. For example, a parent may file contempt proceedings if a noncustodial parent fails to pay child support as required by their family court order. They may also file contempt proceedings if a parent poses any threat to them or their child.

If the court determines a parent has violated the terms of a standing family court order, the parent at fault faces strict penalties. Contempt of court can lead to financial penalties and even incarceration. If a judge determines that the at-fault parent’s behavior is especially dangerous or criminal, they may terminate their parental rights and award sole custody to the other parent.

Ultimately, you need legal counsel you can trust if you seek to address your co-parent’s bad behavior or face an accusation that could result in losing your custody rights. Consult an experienced Springfield, MO, family law attorney when you face this type of challenging situation.