Worried about your former spouse's drug or alcohol use around your children? Substance abuse is a real issue that many adults struggle with. But when, exactly, do the courts get involved, and what can you do as a concerned parent to protect your children while still adhering to a court-ordered visitation and child custody schedule?
When Courts Typically Get Involved
Courts generally respond to a parent's substance abuse either during a child custody hearing or when complaints about suspected substance abuse—and its impact on the children—are reported either to the court that issued the child custody order or to the state (through the Department of Child Protective Services).
How the Courts Respond to Parental Substance Abuse
Courts take action when substance abuse—in the form of alcohol and/or prescription or illegal drugs—actually hinders a parent’s ability to care for his or her children or the parent poses a danger to the children's well-being. If the issue is raised during a child custody hearing, the judge will likely investigate the matter to determine whether the allegations are true, and if so, whether the parent’s alcohol or drug use impacts his or her ability to properly care for the children. In all 50 states, the best interest of the child standard is used to determine child custody. This standard takes each parent’s general fitness -- including alcohol and/or drug use—into account. In addition, if there is a documented history of past substance abuse, the judge may consider a parent's actions during that time period, as well, before making a custody determination.
But let's say that custody has already been determined. How, then, might the courts respond to complaints about substance abuse? If the courts determine that the complaints are valid, the judge may restrict the parent’s contact with the children by altering the visitation and/or custody arrangement.
In certain cases, the judge may also order that a noncustodial parent’s visitation be supervised to ensure that the parent visits the child in a safe and controlled setting. Sometimes, a court-appointed social worker or family member supervises these types of sessions. In addition, the judge may require that the visitation remain supervised until the parent can demonstrate that there has been a change in circumstances or the parent takes part in a substance abuse counseling or rehabilitation program.
How to Handle Concerns About Your Former Spouse's Substance Abuse
If you are concerned about your former spouse's alcohol or drug use, you can raise this issue with the court and take steps to document any incidents that support your concerns. This might include police reports, DUI charges, or similar evidence. It’s important to have a record not only of the other parent’s substance use but documents that indicate that the substance use renders the parent unsuitable. If you are concerned about your child’s safety, you may want to file for a restraining order or refuse visitation with the other parent. Fear of harm to your child is a valid reason to refuse visitation and will demonstrate your legitimate cause for concern to the judge.