Florida family law judges are well aware of the impact abuse and neglect can have on children, and are, understandably, reluctant to place a child in the custody of a parent who is prone to abusive behavior. In a custody case in the state of Florida, the family law judge will be deciding how separated or divorced parents will share responsibility for the children. Legal custody refers to whether one or both parents will be making major decisions for the child such as those associated with educational, medical and religious issues. Physical custody refers to where the child will actually live, as well as visitation arrangements with each parent.
How a Judge Will Determine Custody
When a judge is determining custody during a divorce, he will look at the relationship each parent has with the child, how parenting responsibilities are currently divided and the parenting abilities of each child. The judge will also consider the child’s current living environment, the moral fitness of each parent, the mental and physical health of each parent, and, if the child is old enough and mature enough, his or her preferences may be taken into account. Finally, the judge will take a look at the child’s current community, school and home situations, and will attempt to determine how much each parent actually knows about the child’s medical history, friends, teachers, activities and favorite things. If one or both parent is obviously unwilling to communicate with the other regarding the child’s day-to-day activities, this will be taken into consideration. If a parent has drug or alcohol issues or has any history of abuse and/or neglect related to the child, this will definitely be a factor in determining custody.
The Best Interests of the Child
During a custody dispute, the Florida court will begin with the presumption that both parents should share custody—unless that presumption would not be in the child’s best interests. If a parent clearly has a history of child abuse or neglect, then it is presumed it would not be in the best interests of the child for that parent to have custody. The parent with such a history must prove to the court he or she should share custody and visitation with the other parent. Each parent must disclose any past history of abuse or neglect during the custody case, whether that history is an injunction, charges of domestic violence or even termination of parental rights with other children.
A conviction in any state for physical abuse or neglect of a child, indecent exposure, incest, kidnapping, lewd behavior or sexual abuse or battery will likely ensure the convicted parent does not receive primary custody, and may even be required to have supervised visits with the child. Prior to allowing any contact between the child and the convicted parent, a Florida judge must be convinced there would be no harm to the child’s safety, physical health, mental health, emotional health or well-being. If supervised visitation is ordered, a trained supervisor will be present for any visitation between the child and the abusive or neglectful parent, who may be required to pay for all costs of the supervised visitation.
Terminating Parental Rights
In extreme cases of child abuse or neglect, a Florida judge can determine the child should have no contact at all with the parent, and may instigate a termination of parental rights. Rights may be terminated when a parent is deemed a violent career criminal, by virtue of the fact he or she has been: convicted of first or second degree murder, convicted of sexually abusing or committing aggravated child abuse against the child, has conspired with someone to murder the other parent, or has committed a first degree felony of sexual battery. The age of the child as well as his or her relationship with each parent will be taken into consideration prior to terminating parental rights, as the court considers this a drastic step.
What is Considered Abuse and Neglect?
Physical abuse can include any type of physical injury which is not the result of an accident. The physical injury can result from hitting (whether with a hand, strap, stick or other object), beating, punching, choking, stabbing, throwing, shaking, biting, burning or kicking. The injuries can range from minor bruises to serious fractures or even death. Neglect of a child can fall under several categories: physical, medical, emotional or educational. A parent may fail to provide necessary food or shelter, necessary hygiene, or could fail to provide necessary supervision, based on the age of the child. A parent could fail to provide medical or mental health treatment for the child, or could fail to properly educate a child or provide a child with required special education needs. Emotional neglect can encompass inattention to the child’s emotional needs, allowing the child to use drugs or alcohol, or failing to provide necessary psychological care.
What if Both Parents Have Engaged in Abuse and Neglect of the Child?
If it is determined that both parents were responsible for abuse and neglect of the child, or that one parent was aware of the abuse and neglect and failed to take measures to protect the child, the child could be placed in foster care. Despite the fact the court wants both parents to have a loving, healthy relationship with the child following a divorce, when abuse or neglect is apparent, the court will not hesitate to deny, restrict or severely limit visitation rights for one or both parents. At a minimum, overnight visits will likely be denied to the parent who has engaged in abuse and/or neglect. Certain conditions may be imposed on the parent, such as prohibiting the parent from drinking alcohol during visitations. For more serious conduct, the restrictions will increase in seriousness. For the parent who has shown significant anger or hostility in the presence of the child, the court may order anger management counseling rather than denying visitation altogether.
Getting the Legal Help You Need
If your child’s other parent has engaged in abuse or neglect of the child, or if you have been falsely accused of abuse or neglect as a ploy to gain sole custody, it is very important that you speak to an experienced attorney from The Family Law Place. We understand your concerns regarding the health and happiness of your child, and will work hard to ensure an equitable custody decision.