Girl holding a teddy bear, child custody attorney

Proving that a parent is unfit to retain custody of their children is often difficult and requires more than disagreement with a marital partner about parenting. Understanding of the criteria courts use is essential in establishing that a parent is unfit.

The Best Interests of Children

Courts consider the best interests of the children in determining divorce custody arrangements. This includes ensuring that the relationships children have with both parents and their extended families continue whenever possible.

Proving a Parent is Unfit

It is not enough for one parent to feel the other is unfit. Illinois law establishes the criteria that courts must use to determine whether a parent can retain custody of their children. These include:

Child Abandonment

A parent who abandons their child may be deemed unfit. Abandonment can take many forms beyond the desertion of the child. Lack of sustained interest in a child’s welfare and development may also be a reason for determining that a parent has abandoned the child.


Neglect can include failing to provide adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Inadequate access to necessary medical attention and public education may also be signs of child neglect.

Abuse and Cruelty

Incidents of physical and sexual assault or repeated cruelty toward a child establish that a parent is unfit, but abuse can take other forms. Courts may also consider neglect to be abuse, and suspend parental rights when the child neglect is habitual or ongoing for an extended period.

Criminal Convictions

Some criminal convictions may prove that a parent is unfit, including:

  • Murder
  • Habitual drunkenness
  • Drug abuse, especially in cases where a parent gives birth and tests verify that drug toxins are present in the newborn child’s blood, urine, or tissues

Deliberately Relinquishing Parental Custody

Voluntarily giving up custody of a child may also be proof that a parent is legally unfit. Courts may consider the intentional relinquishment of parental custody as a form of abandonment, demonstrating a lack of adequate concern for a child’s wellbeing.

Responsibility to Protect Children

The requirements to establish that a parent is unfit, go beyond mere disagreement between the parents. When a party to a child custody case truly believes the other parent is unfit, they have a responsibility to protect the children and demonstrate to the court the legally accepted reasons the other parent is unfit.