The Standard for Declaring a Parent Unfit

Mom and her new husband were addicted to methamphetamine, and somehow her oldest child ingested a near fatal dose. Since then, she has completed drug treatment and has continued to test negative for drugs. Her new husband didn’t complete the drug treatment program but has tested negative for drug use on several occasions. Is she unfit to be a parent? That’s the question presented by Patrick v. Williams, Case No. 2050203 (Ala Civ. App. May 26, 2006).

The children had gone to live with the maternal grandmother during her stay in drug treatment. Because the mother had surrendered temporary custody voluntarily, however, there was no judicial determination when she did so. The appeals court determined that her temporary grant of custody to the maternal grandmother did not, by itself, overcome her strong prima facie right to custody of her children as their natural parent.

When the mother attempted to get custody back, the maternal grandmother refused. The trial court heard evidence that the mother had completed drug treatment after the incident involving her daughter’s meth ingestion but that the new husband had left the treatment program after only six days. Both the maternal grandmother and the maternal grandfather (no longer married to each other) expressed doubts about the continued sobriety of the mother’s new husband, despite his faling to test positive since the daughter’s meth ingestion.

The trial court also heard evidence that the new husband suffered from depression and had tried to kill himself on at least one occasion. At the hearing, the guardian ad litem recommended that the maternal grandmother receive custody of the children.

The trial court found that the father of the children had abandoned them and that the mother was unfit. The mother appealed.

The appeals court said that a natural parent’s prima facie right to custody could be overcome only “by proof that the natural parent ‘is guilty of such misconduct or neglect to a degree rendering that parent an unfit and improper person to be entrusted with the care and upbringing of the child in question.'” (quoting Wright v. Wright, 602 So. 2d 421 (Ala. Civ. App. 1992).

The appeals court said that the trial court heard undisputed evidence that the mother and her new husband smoked meth regularly and that the mother’s meth addiction exposed the child to potentially fatal injury; that meth addiction is extremely difficult to overcome, and that neither the mother nor the father could offer a credible answer to the question how the child become exposed to meth that was supposedly locked up safe in the garage.

The trial court had the opportunity to observe the witnesses and hear their testimony. Therefore, it was the province of the trial court, rather than this court, to judge the credibility of those witnesses. Fell v. Fell, 869 So. 2d at 494. We cannot say that the trial court’s determination that the mother was “unfit to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of a natural parent at this time” and, therefore, that it was in the children’s best interest for custody to be vested with the maternal grandmother was unsupported by the evidence.

On other issues, the appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that it had jurisdiction even though the children in question had resided in Texas at the time of the child’s meth ingestion, and it reversed the trial court for its failure to issue a judgment regarding the father’s child support arrearage to the mother.

Justice Murdock dissented, joined by Justice Bryan. The dissent argues that the record did not contain evidence sufficient to establish in a clear and convincing manner that the mother is unfit to have custody of her children. Pointing out that the mother had successfully completed various drug treatment programs and had passed every drug test given to her since her child’s meth injection and that the McLendon doctrine would henceforth be a significant barrier to her ever obtaining custody again, the dissent argued that the appeals court should have reversed the trial court’s award of custody to the maternal grandmother.