If a couple with children separates, and one of the parents is alcoholic or chemically dependent, should the family court:
a. Terminate the addictive parent’s parental rights;
b. Restrict and/or supervise the addictive parent’s parenting time;
c. Condition the addictive parent’s parenting time on his or her sobriety; or
d. Leave alcoholism or chemical dependency out of the custody and parenting time decision altogether?
It depends, but in nearly all cases, options (a) and (d) would be ruled out. Option (d) is too extreme. The family court needs to address the totality of the child’s circumstances in order to determine what is in the child’s best interests. There is no way to comprehensively consider the child’s best interests if a parent’s addiction to drugs or alcohol is ignored.
Option (a) is too extreme in the other direction. If an addictive parent’s parental rights were terminated, there would be other factors involved, such as criminal or abuse issues, persistent neglect of the child, the posing of significant danger to the child, or repeated failure to seek treatment for his or her addiction.
Option (b) is the most likely scenario if the addictive parent is not properly addressing the addiction, or is in the preliminary stages of recovery. Restrictions and/or supervision are necessary to protect the child from the potential risk of being in the care of an impaired parent.
Option (c) is the common arrangement if the parent has learned how to manage his or her addiction. With proper management of addiction and sustained sobriety, the custody and parenting arrangements can be normalized. There may need to be a backup plan for both parents to follow in the case of a relapse. Better still is a parenting plan with healthy co-parenting and communication that encourages the addictive parent to self-assess or self-report if his or her sobriety is tested or threatened, so that he or she is in no way deterred from doing the right thing for the child. It is really no different than the circumstances of any child whose parents must rise to the occasion when coping with an emergency situation.
Being alcoholic or chemically dependent should not serve as an automatic disqualification for a parent to have primary custody or liberal parenting time. Many parents who have overcome addiction are as equipped, or better equipped, to care for children as a parent who has not met those kinds of challenges. Consider a child whose parents are both addicts. Option (c) is a necessary component in those circumstances, and the parents’ mutual accountability for sobriety is paramount. Otherwise, the child is, by default, living in unsafe and uncertain circumstances.
There is no simple or quick answer to the questions that arise when child custody and parenting time are determined in cases of one or two alcoholic or chemically dependent parents. If the issue is given proper weight, neither amplified nor ignored, the children are given the safe and secure living environment that they deserve.