In determining child custody, the courts are looking for an environment that is in the best interest of the child. In some custody cases, the environment options reveal a larger truth about the home options on the table. It can create a larger discussion about possible child neglect.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Child Welfare Information Gateway, the federal government defines neglect or child abuse as any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
The National Paralegal College’s thoughts on neglect are a bit more general, as they define it as a situation where the parents or custodians, by reason of cruelty, mental incapacity, immorality, or depravity, are unfit to properly care for the child or children, or neglects to provide for the child or children’s basic needs.
These laws regarding neglect do not necessarily reflect harm caused by individuals outside of primary caregivers, such as strangers or acquaintances. Those are covered in other laws.
Neglect and child abuse guidelines vary based on the individual state, but a primary hope for the courts in every state is to identify the symptoms and signs for the presence of neglect or child abuse, in order to not only make an informed decision regarding the custody of the child, but to also uphold the law and prosecute those that have broken it.
For example, in the state of Washington, the Department of Social and Health Services, they list the following as signs of a neglected child:
- Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
- Begs or steals food or money
- Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
- Is frequently absent from school
- Abuses alcohol or drugs
- Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
- States that there is no one at home to provide care
Assessment and action
Child Protective Services (CPS) often steps in at this point to make assessments, independent of the custody proceedings, but still on behalf of the court. They are a state-based government agency that investigates the maltreatment of children and helps facilitate the placement of displaced children.
This agency can testify on behalf of the child’s best interests during child custody cases. Sometimes, if an attorney is aware of the findings of a caseworker, they can be called to testify. Their testimony can be damaging for both the custody case and any sort of criminal case, regarding the situation, in the future.
Sometimes, these cases can be between two co-parents who already have divorced. In proving an unsafe environment, there are many states where the filing of an emergency custody petition to modify an existing custody order can suspend the opposing party’s custody rights. This suspension allows for a revisitation of a current custody agreement, opening it up for modification based on the safety, environment, and best interests of the child.
This action can cause primary custody to revert to the other parent, under an emergency temporary status. This is only after the determination is made that there are serious circumstance that warrant an emergency change in the agreement.
For parents that witness or know of serious circumstances caused by the other parent that would create the need to obtain temporary emergency custody, contacting a lawyer as soon as possible would be the best course of action. It’s the most effective way to validate the sense of emergency in filing a pleading.
That being said, it’s also important to file during a scheduled time of visitation with the child, so that when the judge signs the order, the mother does not have to be tracked down. This also eliminates the possibility of police involvement.
Keeping the child safe is the primary task. In situations of neglect among divorced couples, past history and feelings can get involved, creating a misrepresentation of the present circumstances of the child and the child’s home environment.
For the neglected child, a semblance of normalcy is what they are striving for in their new environment. They may find themselves attached to a parent or both parents, due to their perceived feelings of familiarity. They may not even see their home life as neglectful and may see it as a set of circumstances that everyone lives in, especially if being neglected is their normal.
It’s important for child to grow up in an environment that allows them to flourish in the safety and normalcy that childhood entails, whether that is with both parents, one parent, or a guardian. The safety and well-being of the child is vital to their growth, and to be living in a neglectful or potentially abusive environment is not conductive of the growth that a child needs to mature into a well-adjusted adult.