The best interest of a child is the overriding factor that judges consider when deciding custody cases. 

According to the New Jersey Statute Annotated 9§2-4, both parents have equal standing for a custody decision. The court generally leans toward joint custody so both parents may remain active participants in their children’s lives. However, the judge may also grant sole custody to one parent if the judge deems that the other parent is unfit. 

The judge may order parenting time (visitation) for the non-custodial parent. If the situation warrants, the court could order supervised visitation or deny visitation if the court finds that spending time with a parent could be detrimental or dangerous for a child.

Factors Used to Determine Custody in New Jersey

Custody laws in New Jersey list factors that the judge must consider when deciding custody cases. 

Some of those factors are:

  • The needs of the child
  • The parent’s ability and willingness to cooperate and communicate regarding issues related to the child
  • The age and number of children
  • The relationship and interactions between the child and each parent
  • The stability of the home environment for each parent
  • The child’s reasonably preferences
  • A parent’s willingness to accept custody and care of a child
  • The quality and extent of time the parent spent with the child before the separation 
  • The continuity of the child’s education and other daily activities 
  • The parents’ employment responsibilities

A key factor that the judge must consider is the fitness of each parent. The judge may consider any relevant factor that impacts a parent’s fitness. 

Six Factors That Could Result in a Parent Being Considered Unfit

Fitness is defined as a parent’s ability and intention to care for and raise their child. The court considers aspects of the parent’s life, including mental health, physical health, criminal history, career stability, financial stability, and home environment. 

Six factors that negatively impact a parent’s fitness are:

1.  Allegations of Neglect or Child Abuse

If a parent has been accused of neglect or child abuse, the court will conduct a thorough and extensive investigation into the allegations before deciding custody. A DCF investigation will be opened to determine whether the parent is guilty of abuse or neglect.

Allegations of child abuse and neglect are serious charges. As a result, the parent could lose all custody rights. The court could also order supervised visitation or terminate visitation. 

2.  Allegations of Substance Abuse

A parent with a substance abuse problem may not be considered fit to care for a child. The use of drugs and alcohol can cause a parent to neglect or abuse a child. Substance abuse can cause a parent to place their needs before the child’s needs, which places the child at risk in numerous ways.

3.  Failure to Provide Age-Appropriate Restrictions 

Parents must supervise their children and provide age-appropriate restrictions for the safety and wellbeing of the child. If a parent does not enforce rules and restrictions, the judge may decide that the parent should not have custody of the child. 

For example, a parent allows a grade-school child to set their own bedtimes or choose whether to watch R-rated material. While parents have the right to choose how to raise their child, the court can consider whether these choices are in the child’s best interest or the parent’s best interest. 

4.  Allegations of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence allegations are also taken very seriously by the court. If a parent abuses a spouse, partner, or another family member, it places the child in danger, too,

5.  Mental Illness

Being diagnosed with a mental disorder does not automatically result in the loss of custody or parenting time. However, the judge needs to consider how the mental illness could impact the parent’s ability to care for the child. Mental illness experts are often called upon to provide additional information about the illness and how it impacts the parent’s fitness as a parent. 

6.  Lack of Stable Home Environment 

The stability and safeness of the home are also fitness factors. If a parent cannot provide a stable, safe home, the court may award custody to the other parent. 

The judge may consider the other people living in the home when deciding whether the home is safe. For example, the judge may consider allegations that a parent’s new partner is an alcoholic or has faced allegations of child abuse in the past.

The judge may also consider reports from DCF that the home is not safe for the child because the parent does not clean the home or repair damage to the home. 

What Do You Need to Know About Being Labeled as an Unfit Parent?

The thing to keep in mind is that the judge considers all relevant factors. Therefore, your child’s other parent may use any factors that suggest awarding custody to you would go against your child’s best interest. Therefore, if your child’s other parent fights custody, it is best to immediately seek legal advice from a child custody lawyer to protect your parental rights.